Future Nostalgia album review: Dua Lipa shoots for the stars

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Image belongs to Dua Lipa/Warner Records

Dua Lipa has a lot riding on Future Nostalgia, her second studio album, but she’s been taking it all in stride. The British-Albanian pop star broke out on the scene back in 2017, though her ascent to worldwide stardom was gradual, eventually culminating in the worldwide hit single “New Rules” and follow-up smashes in Calvin Harris collaboration “One Kiss” and Silk City collaboration “Electricity”. The latter would garner her a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording and Lipa herself would earn the coveted Best New Artist Grammy Award. Suddenly, it was becoming apparent that Lipa wasn’t just a contender for becoming one of Britain’s biggest pop mainstays, but she was a contender for a role as one of the globe’s biggest pop girls. However, superstardom hasn’t been offered to Lipa without any strings attached; criticisms of the pop star’s stage presence piled up during the singer’s first era, with the few who felt her “New Rules” performances were lackluster growing into many who were unimpressed with the pop star’s choreography for “One Kiss” and harshly criticized her as a result. Aside from this, despite the commercial success of “New Rules”, Lipa found herself somewhat unable to match that track’s performance with follow-up hits in the United States, usually a crucial market for any would-be pop star to break and stabilize within to carve out worldwide domination. Likely in an effort to offset this, prior to kicking off the campaign for Future Nostalgia, Lipa was paired up with proven hitmakers such as Max Martin and Danja yet revealed later on that nothing she’d cooked up with either producer would land on the album. Instead, Lipa eschewed chasing hits and decided to focus on her inspiration of making a current and timeless record with the nostalgic elements of music her parents played during her childhood, opening up about her intentions to perform more with live instruments and honing the visual aspects of her artistry.

Lipa kicks off the album with “Future Nostalgia”, a straightforward mission statement about the album’s sound and themes, expressing her desire to create music that stands the test of time. She also addresses gender inequality within the music industry with similar confidence and brazenness to that of her major influence Gwen Stefani, though Lipa never makes the subject matter sound too heavy for the listener. She sing-talks over production that blends the whistles and bass line from 80s funk with a gritty synth line that makes the song sound current. Lipa perfectly references the disco trends of the 70s with “Don’t Start Now”, the album’s lead single and most radio-friendly offering, which has already surpassed all previous singles to become Lipa’s biggest hit. Opening with an unforgettable bass riff, the track relies on Lipa to sell the song’s message, a functional sequel to the star’s signature hit “New Rules” whose team Lipa also assembles here. She is confident and self-assured as she informs an ex that she’s firmly moved on, and the production backs her up with fun cowbell punctuation in the chorus and funky guitar licks during the verses, allowing Lipa herself to inhabit a certain nonchalance necessary for the song’s narrative and giving the singer a chance to hint at her more sophisticated pop leanings early on in the album. Lipa pivots to 80s synthpop on “Cool”, which allows her to breezily address the beginnings of a romantic relationship against a summery backdrop. The melody here is bright as Madonna’s earlier material with shades of Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile”, but the punchy Phil Collins drums lends an immediate sense of familiarity and Lipa sings with an expressive airiness, as if overcome with the euphoric feeling of love. Lipa continues to play with 80s influences on “Physical”, a track that immediately stands out for the sheer power behind its composition. The beat races along in a manner similar to Patti Labelle’s “New Attitude” and references Olivia Newton-John’s aerobics class essential “Physical” as Lipa feverishly depicts an undeniable and nearly perfect love. The dark and moody verses imbue the song with a fraught tension required to set-up its triumphant chorus and Lipa herself sings passionately, her voice turning into a growl during the bridge so hungry that it alone makes a flawless case for Lipa’s superstardom.

Lipa returns to a more disco-inspired sound on “Levitating”, where a pulsing beat and rhythmic handclaps pave the way for a relentless groove for Lipa to continue building on the euphoria of romance depicted in previous tracks. Vocodered background vocals, the consistent galactic theming and the electric guitar riff in the bridge are motifs that illustrate Lipa’s knowledge of the genre, and her cadence here is not far removed from that of Debbie Harry’s on Blondie’s classic hit “Heart of Glass”. Gang vocals during the latter half of the song elevate the mood till it soars, cajoling listeners to strap themselves in as Lipa shoots for interstellar heights. “Pretty Please” allows Lipa to remain within the disco realm at a relaxed but slicker pace, with Lipa sounding seductive as she pleads for her lover to give her physical attention. However, she decidedly remains on equal standing with her lover and is neither too demanding nor too conciliatory. The production here is clever, reservedly focusing on whispery vocals from Lipa and adding a creaky bed sound during the second verse. As the song comes to a close, the beat turns glitchy and intersperses cowbell in a manner that suggests Lipa has come undone and found the satisfaction she craves. The mood here is understated but sexy, with enough funk that the song hews closely to work on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. “Hallucinate” fades in with stomping percussion and immediately establishes a more modern nu-disco groove in the vein of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, allowing Lipa to go full dance diva with lush orchestral backing as she wavers from her resonant lower register to her light falsetto, working to convey the delirium her emotions for her lover causes within her. The pre-chorus drops out and places Lipa’s voice at the focus of the song until the explosive chorus brings the beat back at an unstoppable pace, giving the album its most club-friendly moment that sounds like an updated cut from Kylie Minogue’s Fever.

“Love Again” commands attention with a cinematic classical introduction, incorporating a sample of White Town’s “Your Woman” as Lipa dreamily sings about how her lover has rebuilt her faith in love. It’s a show-stopping devotional that understands, much like Moloko did on Things to Make and Do, that earnestness endears itself more than gaudiness does. The song employs dramatic strings but pairs it simplistically with Lipa’s strong vocals, the sample and a simple drum line, entrusting its components to sell the song’s meaning. The sample is also used smartly here, allowing Lipa to twist the reluctance of the original’s song sentiment to be the compliant love interest into her own reluctance with coming to terms with having fallen in love again, though Lipa has found a happier and reciprocated version. Lipa takes advantage of another sample in “Break Your Heart” where she lifts the guitar riff from INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and melds it into the disco-heavy sound already established on previous tracks. Here, Lipa is insecure and paranoid about her relationship, having found someone she is truly in love with but questioning whether her counterpart’s feelings are as strong as hers. Sparse piano and a rising synth create a moment of suspense within the pre-chorus as most percussion drops out, swirling to mimic Lipa’s own descent into irrationality before exploding into a saccharine and effortlessly catchy chorus similar to that of The Cardigans’s “Lovefool”. “Good In Bed” allows Lipa to stray away from the dancier elements of her sound, focusing more on the funkier and jazzier elements as she addresses the miscommunication and dysfunction of her relationship and contrasts it with the sexual satisfaction she experiences, posing the hypothesis that the former elevates the latter. Lipa is unafraid to reference her sexuality and treats it as just another facet of her being, not concerned with being serious and embracing the whimsical nature of the track. Here, Lipa finds predecessors in Lily Allen and Outkast who both sonically tread similar waters on Alright, Still and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below respectively and lyrically adopts the playfulness both artists displayed on said albums. Lipa brings the album’s euphoria and energy to a close on “Boys Will Be Boys”, which serves as a sobering comedown as Lipa confronts the experiences of women and their struggles amongst the patriarchal-driven society of today. Lipa’s lyricism is cheeky and blunt, calling upon the feminist themes established as early on as the first track and ties the song, though a blistering ballad and downbeat from the rest of the album’s material, to previous tracks through precarious strings that align with their prevalence throughout the album. Lipa sounds empowered as she posits that women will grow from their struggles and perseverance in the face of adversity, as opposed to boys who exhibit sexist behavior without repercussion will remain immature. Lipa recruits a children’s choir to lift the song’s final chorus, riffing on her point by turning the song into a mocking playground chant.

Future Nostalgia allows Dua Lipa to emerge as a serious contender for a position as one of the best female pop artists of the current generation. Lipa’s debut may have felt more conscious of contemporary trends but on this record, Lipa aims to hone her own sound. Lipa presents a cohesive album that is keenly aware of its forebears in music, unafraid to reference them and exploit her musical knowledge in development of her own artistry. Lipa does not simply ape past musical legends either, bring her own distinctive voice and person to a record that could stand proudly next to staples within the disco and dance-pop genres. Lipa has better mastery of her voice than ever before; she is expressive and her vocals drip with the personality needed to convey her inner thoughts. This is an album that thrives because Lipa adds her own flourishes and perspectives to the content, presenting herself as an empowered and liberated woman, confident in identity and sexuality while navigating her various experiences with love. Not only is it refreshing to see a female artist so in control of her artistry, but Lipa never makes listening to the album seem like a lofty task — her primary goal here is enjoyability for the listener and for herself. Make no mistake, this is a star-making record and though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may impact her performance on the charts, Lipa has gone above and beyond to make her case as a bonafide superstar. She has taken criticisms leveled against her during her debut era and levied it into enhancing and perfecting her craft. Consequentially, there is very little to fault beyond the idea that Lipa may never be able to perfectly replicate the artistic triumph she finds within this album. However, as Lipa never broke a sweat over any potential sophomore slump whilst making this record, one could conceivably presume she will continue not to do so with any following albums and continuing to make music she enjoys. For now, this is her moment. May Dua Lipa’s star shine brightly for the foreseeable future.

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26 year old avid music listener, breaking down new music releases sporadically. twitter: @addylune

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