Arielle De Souza, a 26-year-old engineer working in Paris by way of New York, says she started “getting the buzz about Lizzo” earlier this year. She heard Lizzo’s single “Juice” first. Then “Tempo,” a hip-hop track featuring Missy Elliott, dropped, and De Souza — “being a ’90s kid,” she says — was sold. Shortly after, De Souza started following Lizzo on social media and found the musician supremely relatable.
“Personally, I think I’m a very confident person,” De Souza says over the phone.
Dedicated fans had long been anticipating Friday’s release of “Cuz I Love You,” Lizzo’s first full-length studio album from Atlantic Records. But many had joined the bandwagon more recently, like De Souza: either after hearing “Juice,” which made its TV debut on “The Ellen Show” in January, or after stumbling upon Lizzo’s viral social media videos.
In reality, Lizzo, 30, has been on the scene for years — she released her first EP, “Lizzobangers,” in 2013. But none of her music had yet made the impact “Cuz I Love You” did over the weekend. After its release Friday, the genre-defying, 11-track album quickly climbed the charts, eventually beating out Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” and Billie Eilish’s debut to reach the No. 1 spot on iTunes.
Karen Tongson, professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California and co-host of the podcast “Pop Rocket,” says that she had been surrounded by a “groundswell” of Lizzo fans ahead of the album’s release. Every year, Tongson says, fans would predict Lizzo’s big break was imminent: Finally, it seems, the time has come.
“I do firmly believe that as an artist, she is going to really achieve or reach these echelons of huge mainstream success,” Tongson says.
There was something else notable about the takeover of “Cuz I Love You”: It propelled Lizzo into the mainstream by embracing messages of female empowerment, body positivity and self-love. As one Pitchfork reviewer put it, “In fact, Lizzo does have a genre, something like empowerment-core, and she offers songs for an astonishing array of demographics: thick women, independent women, women in general, anyone struggling with body image, people who are single, people who wish to become single, etc.”
Tongson believes that a confluence of factors led Lizzo to popular success now, including a political landscape in which there’s “contention” over women’s bodies.
“She has that genre-defying versatility,” Tongson says. “She is an expressive performer who people can at once admire and relate to.” In other words, “She fills that need in our culture for people who remind us to love ourselves and to celebrate who we are in our infinite forms of diversity,” Tongson adds.
Lizzo herself has pushed back against the idea that her music is overtly political. “When all the dust has settled on the groundbreaking-ness, I’m going to still be doing this,” she told Allure in March. “I’m not going to suddenly change. I’m going to still be telling my life story through music. And if that’s body positive to you, amen. That’s feminist to you, amen. If that’s pro-black to you, amen. Because ma’am, I’m all of those things.”
Lizzo, born Melissa Jefferson, began her music career in Minneapolis. She’s multifaceted: a classically trained flutist who makes meme-able videos, a rapper, a singer, a songwriter. She told Rolling Stone that at the beginning of her career, she “never believed in myself as a solo artist. I didn’t think anyone wanted to look at me or hear what I had to say.”
That’s a far cry from the confidence espoused in “Cuz I Love You.” Lizzo told Rolling Stone that she wrote the album the same summer she started therapy — that “these songs are soaked in actual scenarios.”
In a piece for NBC, Lizzo expanded on that idea: “I’ve been working on self-care and self-love for so long, that I feel like, with this album, ‘Cuz I Love You,’ I am starting to really answer those questions for myself,” she writes, noting the stigma, especially in the black community, of addressing mental-health issues head on. “I got to use those tools that I created for myself in the real world in real time.”
That’s the aspect of the album that seems to resonate with audiences: vulnerable honesty coupled with undeniable optimism.
“Soulmate” — in which Lizzo sings, “I’m my own soulmate / I know how to love me” — is De Souza’s favorite track on the album. “I think the reason I can relate to her so much is because I am a thicker girl,” she says. “That song really reminds me that I do love myself, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with treating myself to a higher standard.”
And while fans recognize that other women explore similar themes in chart-topping music, they say there’s something that sets Lizzo apart. Emma Hansen, a 20-year-old living in Salt Lake City who works in retail merchandising, compared Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” to songs such as “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor.
“I think she helped move along a good movement of young girls feeling good about themselves, and promoting body positivity, but it was all related to men,” Hansen says of Trainor. “‘Cuz I Love You’ is different; Lizzo is promoting body positivity for ourselves. We don’t need to be confident for anybody else, and especially not to attract a partner.”
While fans have a hard time finding a contemporary analogue to Lizzo, Tongson says that, generationally, “there have always been artists who have put forward different versions and different expressions of female empowerment.” She cites “icons” such as Barbra Streisand, Adele and Aretha Franklin as being part of that tradition.
For this generation, it’s Lizzo’s particular mix of positivity and relatability that seems to be resonating.
“I was listening to her album on my way to work, and to be frank, I’m the only girl on my team, and the only black girl in my entire department,” De Souza says. “Sometimes you just need that extra boost of confidence, you know? It was exactly what I needed on a Friday morning.”