At no point on her major-label debut, Cuz I Love You, does Lizzo ever express rage. The closest she comes is “Jerome,” a song about “fuccboi love,” as the rapper-singer-flutist explained, and what it’s like to fuck a loser and only half-regret it: “I never said that you wasn’t attractive,” she concedes. Along with a few burns, there’s also an admission of real pain, in what’s essentially an inspirational breakup song. This is what Lizzo does best on Cuz I Love You: mapping the highs and lows (but mostly the highs) of being a sexy, confident women who knows what she wants.
Whether she’s reflecting on her old hoe ways (the title track), dreaming of a pansexual future (“Better In Color”), or waiting for her lover to “make [her] crescendo” (“Lingerie”), sex positivity radiates across the album. But the one thing critics have fixated on—body positivity—is notably absent.
The narrative of Lizzo as a body-positive artist is dominant in descriptions of her work. The Guardian categorized her album as “body-positive pop.” “Body-positivity,” Stereogum wrote, “has been a cornerstone of her discography,” while Slate argued that Lizzo’s body-positivity was so stifling that she needed to break past such “themes... that have already made Lizzo semi-famous.” At Vulture, Craig Jenkins wrote that Lizzo “can make masturbation seem like a political act.”
While reviews seem to pinpoint the singer’s relationship to her body as her central message, Cuz I Love You more consistently prioritizes glowing, glossy pop. That critics specifically focus on body empowerment is at odds with the way Lizzo portrays her work. More accurately, she occupies a space that’s common in pop: her body as sexual and covetable. Sex of all kinds is well-worn territory in pop music. Lizzo is putting ordinary, almost cliché experiences that any single millennial woman can relate to, to music: She covers having sex (including shameless sex), having sex with someone you regret, having sex with someone you really like, flirting, knowing you look good, knowing you have options. And yes, at several times, Lizzo makes reference to the freedom you can feel when you truly accept yourself and are comfortable being alone.
Not that Lizzo’s joy in her body isn’t apparent and delightful. Two months ago, in February, she posed naked on Instagram wearing nothing but a black cowboy hat. “Welcome to the Garden of Eden My Pussy,” she wrote. Her account is filled with pictures of her ass and creative tags: she dubbed Coachella #Hochella (last year) and #Asschella (this year). “I’m a BIG BLACK GIRL I make music that’s too good to keep to myself,” she wrote on Instagram in 2018.
It’s not that Lizzo doesn’t rap about being a “thick bitch” and make references to her weight in her music. But the fervor with which the body-positive narrative is projected onto her shows that wearing lingerie and masturbating are still considered groundbreaking when a woman above a size 14 does it. The instinct to frame Cuz I Love You as a case study for fat women’s empowerment says more about the music industry’s reluctance to let a plus-size black woman occupy a complicated space as an artist. Beyond the album’s pristine, shiny empowerment glaze, I hear a grown woman talking about how much she loves to have sex and feel appreciated. She eye-rolls about a man who thinks “you got me dickmatized,” on “Heaven Help Me; and in the middle of her kiss-off, “Jerome,” she warns an ex-lover that “2 a.m. photos with smileys and hearts/Ain’t the way to my juicy parts.” On “Juice,” she laughs as someone’s boyfriend has been hitting her up in the DMs; on “Tempo,” she advises another man who wants in the action to “buckle up.” And on “Soulmate,” she reminisces, almost with a tear in her eye, about how “the old me used to love them Geminis/Like a threesome, fucking with them every night.”
These songs are documenting her life as a sexually active and curious woman, rather than stating a refusal to apologize for taking up space. In doing press for this album, Lizzo has reiterated that she didn’t intend to make a political statement by making a record about her life. “I don’t think that loving yourself is a choice,” she said in an op-ed for NBC News. Body positivity may jump out at fans and music critics, but for her, her fatness is part of the backdrop of life. If her audience could accept it as part of the scenery, and not the full picture, what else would we notice?