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Remembering Sinéad O’Connor: 5 Essential Tracks By The Iconoclastic Singer/Songwriter
Sinéad O’Connor passed away on July 26 at age 56. The Irish musician had a voice like no other, which she used to speak against injustice.
Few had a voice that compared to the eight-time GRAMMY nominee Sinead O’Connor. An artist and an activist, O’Connor wrote with conviction and pathos, packing a punch with both poetry and politics. Her voice was her main instrument and lifelong weapon — one she wielded well in a whisper or a wail.
Born Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland on Dec. 8 1966, the singer passed away on July 26, 2023. She was only 56.
"The Recording Academy mourns with the music community today as we learn of the passing of Sinéad O’Connor," said Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. "Revered by audiences around the globe, her music has left an indelible mark on our culture that will continue to inspire. Our thoughts are with her loved ones at this difficult time."
Tributes on social media arrived throughout the day. Everyone from heads of state to fellow GRAMMY winners and nominees paid their respects. Bryan Adams wrote: "RIP Sinead O’Connor. I loved working with you making photos, doing gigs in Ireland together, and chats, all my love to your family." Tori Amos called O’Connor "a force of nature and a brilliant songwriter and performer whose talent we will not see the like of again. Such passion, such intense presence & a beautiful soul, who battled her own personal demons courageously." Billy Bragg added that she was "braver than brave," and Yusuf/Cat Stevens called her a "tender soul."
O'Connor's 1987 debut record, The Lion & The Cobra, received critical acclaim and achieved gold certification in the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands. Over the course of a three and a half-decade career, the songwriter released 10 studio albums (her last, I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss, came in 2014) that demonstrated her broad influences and desire to constantly explore new genres, from jazz to pop. One of these forgotten side roads traveled from the mid-2000s was her first reggae album (Throw Down Your Arms), produced by Sly & Robbie.
The oft-misunderstood artist was a non-conformist and was ok with that. Fame was not always her friend and caused much anxiety; later, she lived behind a veil after converting to Islam in 2018. O’Connor had a troubled upbringing marked by trauma and tragedy, much of which she detailed for the first time in her candid 2021 memoir Rememberings. Just last year, the songwriter lost her son to suicide. The grief of this no doubt constantly consumed her.
To some, O’Connor is remembered as much for her action as her albums — specifically tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II (that once hung on her mother’s wall) following her October 1992 "Saturday Night Live" performance to raise awareness about sexual abuse within the Irish Catholic church. This act got her black balled for life by NBC, but she never regretted this fit of rebellion nor any other public stance she took on causes and issues she championed.
Her songs were a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. To get a sample of the beauty and the passion of this artist gone far too soon, here are five essential Sinéad O’Connor tracks.
The second single off O’Connor’s debut The Lion And The Cobra, "Mandinka" (named for a West African ethnic group) resonated most. In Rememberings, O’Connor wrote that watching "Roots’" — a TV miniseries aired in the late 1970s based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name — inspired this song.
"Mandinka" became a college radio hit and was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. The then 20-year-old performed "Mandinka" at the 31st GRAMMY Awards, sporting Public Enemy’s symbol on her shaven head in solidarity with the hip-hop artists who boycotted the ceremony that year in protest of the inaugural Best Rap Performance award not being included in the telecast.
"Drink Before the War" (1987)
One of O’Connor’s earliest demos (she wrote it as a teenager), the song showcases the incredible range — and rage — that the singer was capable of.
"Drink Before the War" was written about the headmaster at O'Connor's Catholic reform school who tried his best to whip the creativity out of her. As this song shows, it just furhter fueled her muse and her ire.
"Nothing Compares 2 You" (1990)
O’Connor took this song Prince-penned and made this pop lush, string-laced ballad her own. Her voice builds gradually like a steam engine before reaching a climax in the chorus, when the singer shows the full range of her instrument.
"Nothing Compares 2 You" became an MTV staple, which helped the song climb to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard charts and hit No. 1 in the UK. This single received three GRAMMY nominations as well as her first — and only — golden gramophone for Best Alternative Music Performance. Famously, O'Connor did not attend the ceremony to accept the award, and instead penned an open letter detailing her reasoning.
"Black Boys on Mopeds" (1990)
From its opening lines, O’Connor wastes no time telling listeners what the song is about.
Referencing the Chinese government’s handling of the student protests that occurred in Tiananmen Square the previous year, the singer lashes out at Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government for its brutality, singing in reference to police racism on the homefront: "it’s strange she should be offended when the same orders are given by her."
Backed by the simple strums of an acoustic guitar, O’Connor's biting chorus further reveals this inherent hypocrisy: "England’s not the mythical land of Madame George & roses, it’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds."
"No Man’s Woman" (2000)
From her 2000 release Faith & Courage, this anthem with a bouncy beat was inspired by the birth of O’Connor’s daughter. After more than a dozen years working in a male-dominated record industry — and after being blackballed and ostracized by many throughout the late 1990s following her "SNL" stunt — O’Connor returned with this empowering song that shows both her feminist and spiritual side.
© Paisley Park Enterprises | Photographer: Randee St. Nicholas
Behind 'Diamonds and Pearls' Super Deluxe Edition: A Fresh Look At Prince & The New Power Generation’s Creative Process
With unreleased songs and a concert, a new series of box sets broadens the understanding of Prince's 'Diamonds and Pearls.' GRAMMY.com spoke with the New Power Generation's Tony Mosley about creating the 1991 release.
When Prince released Diamonds and Pearls in October 1991, it represented both a sea change and return to form.
The 13th album since his 1978 debut, Diamonds and Pearls was Prince's first release with the New Power Generation — a band formed with several musicians who toured with him in the years since the Revolution. Where the Revolution, which disbanded in 1986, was synth-heavy, NPG were more guitar and percussion-centric. The new group was anchored by Rosie Gaines, a powerhouse vocalist and songwriter from the Bay Area, and rapper Tony M.
Aesthetically, the holographic album cover — which depicts Prince in close contact with two new faux girlfriends named Diamond and Pearl — reflected the sensuality and excess long associated with the Purple One.
Fans devoured saucy singles such as the title track, "Gett Off," "Insatiable" and the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, hit "Cream." The title track was nominated for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal at the 35th GRAMMY Awards; "Gett Off" was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal the previous year.
Thirty-two years later, on Oct. 27, Paisley Park Enterprises, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Records will release remastered standard, deluxe and "super deluxe" versions of the album in digital and various physical formats on Sony’s Legacy Recordings. The latest of several posthumous album reissues, this new suite of Diamonds and Pearls releases include a variety of fresh amenities.
For example, the super deluxe edition includes 33 unreleased studio recordings, 14 live songs, 15 remastered singles (which include remixes and edits) and three hours of video, including a full live performance of the album at Glam Slam, Prince’s former Minneapolis nightclub. The album wasn’t accompanied by a tour in America, so it’s a show that Stateside fans never got to see.
"Prince collectors are excited about every release, though mileage varies," says Scott Woods, author of Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods. "The gold for collectors is really in unreleased material…. Even if you don't like Diamonds and Pearls, you have to love the dozens of unreleased tracks that come with it.
"I don't know most of the unreleased tracks, so it's about to be Christmas in October for me," Woods adds.
The unreleased songs provide a gift of insight into some of Prince’s musical interests that he explored in the early '90s, including hard guitar-driven rock, house, hip-hop and New Jack Swing. Yet the original release of Diamonds and Pearls showcases Prince's experimental nature.
"He took some chances — especially on me, to bring me into the fold," admits Tony M, a.k.a. Tony Mosley, the New Power Generation’s rapper who was also a dancer and appeared in Purple Rain. The pop community felt like Prince had ditched them and his fan base didn't want to hear rap, Mosley shared. "So how are we going to bridge this gap? There were plenty of times I felt like I was swinging at both sides."
Mosley co-wrote and/or appeared on several songs on Diamonds and Pearls, including "Gett Off," and he contributed heavily to several of the previously unreleased songs on the super deluxe edition. Many of the previously unreleased songs contain riffs and iterations of ideas that appear on the original album track listing, so listeners can get a notion of how he refined the known songs along the way.
Since Prince was notoriously guarded about all of the unreleased material in his vaunted Paisley Park vault, he may not have wanted his fans to hear some of the works in progress that are included in the super deluxe edition. But they offer a much-welcomed window into his creative processes that will strengthen a fan’s ardor for the artist.
"[Prince] was so protective and so reclusive on a lot of this stuff," Mosley says.
"Some of [the tracks], we were like, ‘Man, this is it, you need to drop this now!’ But it would never see the light of day. I’m glad, in the same breath, that some of these things are coming out, because you see a different side to him… it gives the fans an opportunity to see how he progressed and began to put songs together."
While none of the tracks were finished, the foundation was there, Mosley explained. "Once he brought in the musicians to expand upon the original idea, you start to see it flourish and grow and bloom into something totally different."
"I remember being fascinated with the rapper on the album, Tony M," Public Enemy frontman Chuck D wrote in an essay that accompanies the super deluxe edition called "He Taught Everyone You Can Never Make Too Much Music." "I thought he was just dope, thought what they were doing was funkier and more on point than anything that was going on in the rap circles and R&B at that moment, and they were on it.
"Prince definitely used rap as an instrument. He kept the tempos up and strong, and the music was giving it air and space, and I don’t think a lot of rap records were doing that," he continued.
The beyond-prolific Prince didn’t exactly have patience for the long album cycles that were typical from major labels of the era. While he was touring the Diamonds and Pearls album, he was writing songs that would appear on 1992’s Love Symbol.
"By the time [Diamonds and Pearls] came out, we had three more albums in the can and he was ready for the next project," Mosley recalls, "and I just remember listening to the argument over and over and over again. You know, Warner Brothers looks at it from a business perspective — they’re, like, ‘Dude, there’s five more singles on this album, we need to work this.’ And Prince was like, ‘I’m done, I’m ready to drop the next one.’"
Remembered for its nakedly brazen jams (and the accompanying assless outfits) as well as its super sweet ballads, Diamonds and Pearls remains a highly listenable effort among Prince’s vast discography.
"It holds its value," Mosley says of hearing the album today. "We were moving so fast at the time and we were just constantly recording and you didn’t really have time to sit back and reflect on what you had just created because he had moved on. So you had to move at that pace. When I go back and I start to listen to a lot of that stuff, I say, man, we really did some different things, some creative things.
"It was frustrating at times. But, he had his vision, and one thing he always schooled me to do and taught me along the way, he said, ‘Tony, I don’t write for everybody else, I write for me and what I’m feeling," Mosley recalls. "So when you write, don’t write to impress a certain demographic or community, write what comes from you.’"
Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
9 Things We Learned From Sly Stone's New Memoir
The recently released 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' reflects on Sly Stone's career and personal history with a focus on the late '60s through the 1980s.
Nearly 60 years into his career, Sly Stone remains thankful.
His recently released memoir, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), offers an earnest look into the life and music of the funk and soul giant.
"He's at the top of the pantheon for a certain part of rock ‘n’ roll and funk and soul, and should stay there," says Ben Greenman, who co-authored the memoir.
The book – which is the inaugural release on Questlove’s publishing imprint, AUWA Books – pulls its title from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 single of the same name.
"When I'm co-writing with somebody, they start to define the rhythm," says Greenman, who’s also co-written memoirs from Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. "Sometimes I'll pitch a certain structure. Other times in the course of talking, they start to develop their own sense and rhythm of things and then you have to reflect that."
Thank You comes over 40 years since Stone released his final album, Ain’t But the One Way, and reflects on the musician’s career, along with surprising, little-known moments. To Greenman, Stone’s tales were reflective of his headspace in the late-1960s and throughout the ‘80s, when the artist was often preoccupied with a chaotic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
Towards the midpoint of the book, Stone hilariously shared that he once loaned a Cadillac to Etta James, although the police later discovered that the vehicle was stolen.
"The assumption that I had is ‘Oh my God, you gave her this car and good faith and then it turned out it was stolen. How embarrassing, Greenman explains. "But the vibe I got was he probably knew, he just thought that the fake papers on it would hold. That story was so strange and weird and out of nowhere, but sort of representative of what it must have been [like] to be him at that time."
Despite certain points of misfortunes in Stone’s journey, including decades-long drug abuse, the Sly and the Family Stone frontman carried on as an prestigious musical act. To honor Stone’s legacy and Thank You, here are nine takeaways from the book.
Stone Started Out In A Family Group
Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, began in music as part of 1950s family gospel group the Stewart Four. The second of five children, the Pentacostal family got their start in church upon relocating from Denton, Texas to Vallejo, California. The siblings all learned an recited material by gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May and the Swan Silvertones.
Stone’s parents, K.C. and Alpha, were multi-instrumentalists who noticed their children’s musical forte, and the Stewart Four signed a hyperlocal single deal with the Church of God in Christ, the Northern California Sunday School Dept. Released in 1956, Stone’s first-ever record "On The Battlefield / Walking In Jesus Name" was limited to roughly 100 copies.
Stone Influenced Herbie Hancock And Miles Davis
Sly and the Family Stone debuted in 1967 with A Whole New Thing, and the collective reinvented funk and progressive soul with follow-ups Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, and their 1971 landmark There's a Riot Goin' On. Their 1973 album Fresh came at an auspicious time for Sly devotees.
Jazz greats Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock took notice of Stone's musicianship. The artist was a direct influence for Hancock’s seminal 1973 album Head Hunters, which includes a punchy jazz fusion cut named after Stone.
Stone recalls that in 1973, Columbia Records dropped multiple jazz acts, including Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, in favor of rock and funk artists. Miles Davis was fascinated by the introductory Fresh track "In Time"; according to Stone, Davis was rumored to have replayed the song for his band to "work out the rhythms of it."
The Black Panther Party Took Offense To The Family Stone
Sly and the Family Stone almost ended before the group went mainstream. In the ‘60s, the Bay Area-based group were neighbors to the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party.
The organization protested the band’s for leaning into "what White America wanted," per Stone. The Panthers disdained the presence of white members Jerry Martini (saxophonist) and Greg Errico (drummer), pressuring Stone to get rid of the musicians.
Early BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver also wanted Stone to make a six-figure donation to the cause, which Stone refused. Stone condemned the Panthers’ defiance of laws and considered his group to be politically neutral.
Bob Marley And The Wailers Were Removed From The Family Stone’s 1973 Tour
In October 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers began their first U.S. tour as a supporting act for Sly and the Family Stone. The 17-date tour ended after four shows for the reggae band, who had just released their seminal Catch A Fire.
From Stone’s perspective, the Wailers weren’t a "good match" for American crowds at the time, and Bunny Wailer was no longer performing with the group. Stone dismissed allegations that his group felt they were upstaged.
"They played slow. They had accents," Stone wrote about the Wailers, adding, "There was no offense on our part but we shipped them off."
"How was Bob a threat to Sly Stone?" Joe Higgs, in the 2017 Marley biography So Much Things to Say. People said they can’t hear us: our accent, they couldn’t understand; our rhythm, too slow. We weren’t happening. And our outfits were inappropriate. We were rebels."
Stone And Kathy Silva Had 20,000 Guests At Their Madison Square Garden Wedding
Stone’s marriage to actress-model Kathy Silva was arguably the first concert-turned-wedding. The couple wed on June 5, 1974 at Madison Square Garden. Plans were made in a rush, and guests who received invitations were asked to RSVP by May 31.
An audience of almost 20,000 (some who paid as little as $8.50) attended the wedding ceremony, which doubled as Sly and the Family Stone’s concert. The Temptations co-founder Eddie Kendricks performed first before Stone’s mother and niece, Lisa, gave religious acknowledgements.
Later, on the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria, champagne flowed and guests dug into a cake shaped like a vinyl record. A reception featured soul food and Japanese cuisine, honoring their Black and Hawaiian heritage.
The day after the special occasion, Stone discovered that wedding officiant Bishop B.R. Stewart wasn't registered in New York, but paperwork was hurried to the city clerk to make the marriage legally official.
Stone And Prince Almost Collaborated
Although Sly and the Family Stone disbanded in 1983, Stone had his eyes on up-and-coming artists. Stone was told that a young Prince was a "new version" of himself and peers Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Stone’s then-girlfriend (and now-manager) Arlene Hirschkowitz encouraged the artists to collaborate following a late-’80s meeting at L.A.’s Roxbury Club.
"I wasn't always on Prince, but that day I was," Stone wrote. "I told [Hirschkowitz] that I was excited about the idea and I meant it. But he never called."
Stone And George Clinton Were Close Friends
In the mid-’70s Sly and the Family Stone was a supporting act on the collective’s P-Funk Earth Tour. After the Family Stone disbanded in the ‘80s, Sly Stone reconnected with fellow funkateer George Clinton.
Clinton owned a farm in Michigan, where he and Stone dabbled in recreational drugs in their downtime. The two closely worked together, with Stone co-writing "Catch a Keeper" for Clinton’s all-female group the Brides of Funkenstein, composed of four women who were previously Stone’s background vocalists. The song was later released by the P-Funk All-Stars, and the Funkenstein was shelved, but Stone also had a writing credit on 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Funk Gets Stronger").
As Stone’s collaboration with P-Funk continued, he noticed that bassist and vocalist Bootsy Collins replicated his style. "Sometimes when I was out walking people would call to me, ‘Bootsy! Bootsy!’ I didn’t mind it so much," Stone wrote.
Michael Jackson Offered To Return Sly Stone’s Catalog
Stone was friendly with the Jackson family, mainly vocalist and former Jackson 5 member, Jermaine, but it was Michael Jackson who upheld Stone’s music. In 1983, Jackson acquired the international rights to Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog. The acquisition was Jackson’s first under his publishing company, MIJAC Music, as Stone didn’t assume that the group’s old songs were of monetary value.
Shortly before his death, Jackson offered to return Stone’s catalog under an agreement that he would go to substance abuse rehab. Stone disagreed with Jackson’s terms, even being a no-show to a meeting that the King of Pop scheduled. Stone later tried to make amends by sending Jackson a letter, though Jackson never received it. Someone sold the letter as memorabilia.
In 2019, Stone closed a deal with MIJAC, allowing Stone to keep minority interest in the catalog and resume collecting on his music.
Sly Stone Was Honored With A Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award
The music of Sly and the Family Stone was featured in a tribute performance at the 2006 GRAMMYs. The Nile Rodgers-curated ceremony consisted of tribute performances from Joss Stone, John Legend, and Van Hunt ("Family Affair"), Maroon 5 ("Everyday People"), will.i.am ("Dance to the Music"), with Steven Tyler and Stone ending with "I Wanna Take You Higher." The live show was Stone’s first since 1987.
In 2017, Sly Stone was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement special merit award.
Photo: Mason Rose
5 Takeaways From Janelle Monáe’s New Album, 'The Age of Pleasure'
On her first album in five years, Janelle Monáe trades a sci-fi world for a lush sense of escape. Out June 9, 'The Age of Pleasure' offers a utopia of sensual and sonic exploration.
Since her 2010 debut album, The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe’s work has been grounded in intricacy.
Whether Monáe is building sci-fi worlds, continuing the Afrofuturism narrative of her Cindi Mayweather character or analyzing the concept of American identity on 2019’s Dirty Computer — which scored a nomination for Album Of The Year at the 2019 GRAMMYs — she tasks listeners with digesting various storylines and concepts.
Now, Monáe is shaking off all expectations with her fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure. Released on June 9, the 14-track album takes a more streamlined approach, creating an escape in just over 30 minutes. The artist appears lighter, even more self-assured and quite frankly (as seen with her near-nude promo campaign) ready to get wild.
The Age of Pleasure is Monáe's first album in five years and trades in her previous warnings of AI-driven dystopian futures for a lush paradise, replete with a reggae swing. With warm melodies and lyrics meant for the bedroom (or wherever one enjoys pleasure), the album creates a utopia where all are welcome.
"I think being an artist gets lonely," Monáe told Rolling Stone in May. "Most people don’t understand what’s going on in my brain. Community has been so helpful to me; it’s beautiful that I have a title called The Age of Pleasure because it actually re-centers me. It’s not about an album anymore. I’ve changed my whole f—ing lifestyle."
Throughout its journey of self-exploration, here are five takeaways from Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Age of Pleasure.
Janelle Embraces Sexuality Across The Spectrum
In 2018, Monáe shared that she was pansexual and came out as nonbinary last year (using the pronouns "free-ass motherf—er, they/them, her/she"). Her journey of discovering more about her queer identity (which was alluded to in previous albums, most notably Dirty Computer’s woman empowerment anthem "Pynk") envelopes The Age of Pleasure.
"Lipstick Lover" is a hazy, reggae-tinged ode to the queer woman gaze ("I just wanna feel a little tongue, we don't have a long time," Monáe urges), while "The Rush" mimics an orgasm complete with a breathy spoken word by actress Nia Long and a naughty verse from Ghanaian American singer Amaarae. And then there’s "Water Slide," which floods the speakers with barely-concealed innuendos.
The idea of "guilty pleasure" is completely stripped of guilt. Here, there isn’t shame or taboo surrounding sexual acts or what one identifies as.
She Showcases The Beauty Of The Diaspora
While creating this album, Monáe got inspired through parties hosted on her Wondaland West property in Los Angeles. People from all backgrounds were welcomed, and the album celebrates the joining of the communities. Monáe called upon artists across the diaspora — Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica and the Dirty South — to be part of her utopia.
Fela Kuti’s son Seun and his band Egypt 80 open the album on "Float," queer icon Grace Jones seduces the ear with the French-speaking "Ooh La La" interlude, Jamaican dancehall legend Sister Nancy provides reggae authenticity "The French 75." The end result shows there is power in creative numbers, as well as sonic commonality across the African diaspora.
Self-Confidence Is At An All-Time High
The artist is completely free lately, from displaying her breasts on red carpets to dancing on bar tops at afterparties. She adores every curve of her body, and that confidence radiates on The Age of Pleasure. It’s best displayed on "Phenomenal," where Monáe and rapper Doechii trade cocky lines atop a deliciously wacky beat that fuses South African amapiano with New York City ballroom culture. "I'm lookin' at a thousand versions of myself and we're all fine as f—," Monáe muses more than once.
She doesn’t want you to forget just how good she looks and wants everyone to feel that same way about themselves. The "I'm young and I'm Black and I'm wild" line on "Haute" is better digested as an affirmation in front of the mirror.
Pleasure Is Meant For Fun In The Sun
Pleasure is best enjoyed in the sweltering heat, so it only makes sense the artist released this album at the brink of summertime. Her "Lipstick Lover" music video is a hedonistic dream, with queer women and femmes enjoying each other’s company (and body parts) at a sweaty, West Coast pool party.
Album highlight "Only Have Eyes 42" winks at polyamory and its dreamy flip on the Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic is best served with a Red Stripe beer and sand beneath one’s feet. Whether you’re enjoying the lapping waves on a Caribbean island or soaking up the rays in your backyard, The Age of Pleasure is the fuel for your own fiesta.
She Hasn’t Lost The Funk
As the late Prince’s mentee, Janelle Monáe is a master at funk. While she boasts "No I’m not the same" on the album opener, parts of Monáe’s previous sound excitedly peek through.
Her discography is stuffed with dancefloor jams, and The Age of Pleasure keeps the party going with a seamless fusion of rap, R&B and funk. Still, its exploration of new sounds like reggae, dancehall, amapiano and Afrobeats is a thrill.
From the triumphant horns on "Float" to the electric groove of "Champagne S—", the album is begging for a live rendition. It just so happens that Monáe is embarking on a North American tour. It kicks off on Aug. 30 in Seattle and will keep the good vibes going until Oct. 18 in Inglewood, California.
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
Lizzo's Road To 'Special': How Beyoncé, Prince & Self-Love Helped Find Her Destiny As Pop's Confidence Queen
With her fourth album, 'Special,' the three-time GRAMMY winner pursues the art of making flawless songs — while continuing to make music that inspires.
Lizzo's fourth album, Special, is the follow-up to 2019's GRAMMY-winning album Cuz I Love You. Arriving July 15, the album is buoyed by the No. 1 hit "About Damn Time," a disco-inspired anthem that's on the level of the artist who has inspired her most. (Beyoncé's seventh studio album, 'Renaissance,' is due July 29.)
Born in Detroit, Lizzo — whose birth name is Melissa Jefferson — moved to Bey's hometown of Houston when she was 10. As Lizzo began developing her skills as a flutist, Beyoncé was just getting started in Destiny's Child — and the inspiration began.
"When I first saw Destiny's Child, I was in the fifth grade, and it made me want to sing and make music," Lizzo told Interview in 2014. At the same time, Lizzo was hearing freestyles on the radio that also sparked something within her. "All of these influences and these styles started to blend together," she added.
Over the next several years, she eventually got involved in Houston's indie scene. After joining a prog-rock band at 19, Lizzo knew she had found her path. "That's when I began to say, 'Okay, this is something that I could take seriously.'"
A self-confessed band geek from her tween years into college, Lizzo's musical path was a balancing act between her love of flute and love for singing. But as she got older, she realized that she was being pulled in two different directions in music.
"It was hard," she told CBS News in 2019. "I left college. I basically had to choose between flute or this other lifestyle that I was chasing, where I was up super-late with my friends, goin' to parties, tryin' to rap at shows, and then waking up early, gettin' to the band hall, rehearsing, being on the field, taking math class, which was torture.
"I was juggling a lot of lifestyles," she continued. "And simultaneously, in my personal life, my family was being, you know, torn apart. So, I didn't really have that type of support at that time in my life. And my father had started getting sick. And my mom moved away, because she needed to make money to support my dad and what he was going through and support her children."
Within a matter of years, Lizzo's future became perhaps more uncertain than ever: She dropped out of college, her dad passed away, and she quit the rock band she'd joined. "Twenty-one was the worst year of my life," she revealed to Teen Vogue in 2018. "I was addicted to the gym, I didn't eat and I was sleeping in a dusty car, all for music. I thought my life was over."
But through all of the hardships, one constant remained: Beyoncé.
"When I dropped out of college and I was really depressed, I listened to [Beyoncé's 2006 album] B'Day on repeat and I would just sing B'Day all the time," Lizzo said during her episode of Carpool Karaoke with James Corden in June. "And I was like, 'I'm going to be a singer, I'm going to be a singer.'
"The way she makes people feel is how I want to make people feel with music," Lizzo added. "She has been my North Star." (Beyoncé even inspired the name of Lizzo's beloved flute: Sasha Floot, an homage to Bey's 2008 album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, and the alter ego it introduced.)
In 2011, Lizzo moved to Minneapolis in hopes of a fresh start. She soon met Sophia Eris, who has since become one of her best friends, main collaborators, and Lizzo's touring DJ. The pair, along with Claire de Lune, formed The Chalice, a pop-rap trio inspired by — you guessed it — Destiny's Child. The lyrics of songs like "Push It" also payed homage to acts like Salt N Pepa and TLC, and teased the genre-melding stylings Lizzo would eventually take on in her own material.
The music scene in Minneapolis sparked Lizzo's creativity and helped change her mindset from wanting to give up to actively pursuing solo success. Her first album, a rap collection called Lizzobangers, came out on the Minneapolis-based indie label Totally Gross National Product in 2013; Virgin Records released it again in 2014. On the album, Eris appears with Lizzo on "Batches and Cookies" — which is also the first song Lizzo ever wrote — and songs such as "Faded" and "Bus Passes and Happy Meals" helped establish her own sonic lane.
After catching wind of her talent, Prince invited Lizzo and Eris to work on the song that became "Boytrouble" on his 2014 album with 3rdEyeGirl, Plectrumelectrum. Her rap verse and Prince-esque screams on "Boytrouble" contain all the early indications of the bad-b energy that rules her later songs. "99 problems, but these boys not one," she rhymes on the track.
"I felt like I kinda transcended from being just a vocalist into an artist," Lizzo said in a 2017 interview with Fuse about working with Prince. "That was a huge confirmation in what I was doing for me and my mama. It's surreal."
"And I got paid! My first big check ever. Thank you, Prince, for my laptop," she told NPR in 2019. (Prince later offered to produce an album for her, but he passed away in 2016 before a project could materialize.)
While confidence has never been lost on Lizzo's music, her trademark body-positivity anthems started taking shape on her 2015 self-released sophomore album, Big Grrrl Small World, with tracks like "My Skin" and "Humanize." After meeting producer Ricky Reed, she was signed to his label Nice Life Recordings, which had a deal with Atlantic Records. They released her Coconut Oil EP in 2016 and continued that important work of promoting self-love and esteem.
"I thought I needed to run and find somebody to love," she sings on the title track. "But all I needed was some coconut oil."
The following single, "Truth Hurts," was released in September 2017, but it would be three years before the release of Lizzo's next album. She'd later reveal that her mental health was tested during this time.
"The day I released 'Truth Hurts' was probably one of the darkest days I've had ever in my career," she shared with PEOPLE in 2019. "I remember thinking, 'If I quit music now, nobody would notice. This is my best song ever, and nobody cares.' I was like, 'F— it, I'm done.' And a lot of people rallied; my producer, my publicist and my family, they were like, 'Just keep going because this is the darkest before the dawn.'"
A 2019 re-release of "Truth Hurts" on the deluxe edition of Lizzo's third album, Cuz I Love You, was prompted by its popularity on TikTok and inclusion in a Netflix movie called Someone Great. Within six months, Lizzo went from obscurity to center stage: "Truth Hurts" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019.
The following year, the song won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Solo Performance. Lizzo — the most nominated act at the 2020 GRAMMYs, with eight nods — also took home the GRAMMY for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance for "Jerome," and was nominated for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Truth Hurts," Best New Artist, and Best R&B Performance for "Exactly How I Feel."
"Now the song that made me want to quit is the song that everyone's falling in love with me for, which is such a testament to journeys: Your darkest day turns into your brightest triumph," she told PEOPLE in the 2019 interview.
Cuz I Love You (Deluxe Edition) also includes the lead single, "Juice," "Water Me" (which was also originally released in 2017) and "Tempo," a collaboration with Missy Elliott. Lizzo's confidence grew as people embraced her and her music, and she started promoting body positivity in her everyday life on a higher level. In 2022, she debuted her own shapewear line called Yitty and released Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, an Emmy-nominated reality show on Amazon Prime that highlighted her process of selecting plus-sized dancers to perform with her on the road.
With three GRAMMYs and a slew of hits, Cuz I Love You became a tough album to follow. Even Lizzo herself has said that a song has to be perfect in order to be released.
"You're finally able to listen to this album I've been working on for three years, and I know it's been a long time, and it's about damn time I put it out," she says in "A Very Special Message from Lizzo," a post-song interlude that closes out Special. "But you have to know that I took my time for me, but I also took my time for you. I wrote almost 170 songs for this album to find these perfect 12 songs to bring to you because I felt like this was what not only I needed to hear, but you needed to hear and the whole world needs to hear."
Some of the cuts that made the 12-song Special tracklist were written over and over and over — including "About Damn Time." She revealed in an April interview with Big Boy's Neighborhood for Los Angeles' Real 92.3 that she wrote about "75 versions" of the song in the pursuit of making it flawless.
"There's ingredients to a perfect song," she told Big Boy. "The lyrics, the way the chorus lifts and makes you feel, the production sonics, the length of the song, what I am talking about in this exact moment and how it affects people in 2022. Not 2020, not 2021 — how it affects people right now."
She shared some of the many questions she asked herself while creating Special to see if songs were worthy of making the album. As Lizzo has alluded, fans can keep those questions in mind while listening to the album.
"Is it timeless? Is it going to be able to be sung forever? How do I sound on it, how do certain words sound coming out of my mouth? Can you make it an Instagram caption?" Lizzo posed to Big Boy. "There are so many things to the songs that have to make them perfect. It may not be the most viral number one song in the world but it's a good perfect f song, like a perfect sandwich."
Special is Lizzo with a wide-open heart, ready to give love to the world. No matter how perfect the finished product ended up, 'Special' stays true to the goal she's had from the beginning: Giving people the confidence Beyoncé gave her. But with or without Bey's influence, Lizzo's purpose has been driven by love — and now, she's made a full album about it.
"I think love is the heart of this album," she told Zane Lowe in a July interview for Apple Music. "I think everything I've been doing prior to Special was in pursuit of love. Cuz I Love You was almost this autobiographical album about who i want to be… and now Special is a celebration of who I am right now. It's very present, and I think that's the only place love can really exist — in the present."
She elaborates on Special's love-driven inspiration in "A Very Special Message from Lizzo," adding that the songs are what "the whole world needs to hear." As she closes it out with a heartfelt thank you, Lizzo adds one more uplifting message: "If you don't take nothin' away from this album, I want you to know, you're special, and I'm so glad you're still with us."
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