Music

Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ Isn’t A Masterpiece, But It’s The Album We Need Right Now

Future Nostalgia is exactly the album so many of us wanted - but didn’t know we’d need - in 2020.

dua lipa future nostalgia photo

Of all the new popstars who emerged in the second half of the 2010s, Dua Lipa was the closest thing to a sure bet. The daughter of a former Kosovan rock singer, the former model with a distinctive alto singing voice was signed to Warner in 2015 with great expectations.

Even before she’d released her debut album, her visage was unavoidable — promoted in very traditional label fashion across magazines, radio, TV, documentaries, every imaginable avenue.

2017’s Dua Lipa was mixed in quality, but had undeniable hits. Its sixth single, ‘New Rules’ — now sitting at 1.3 billion Spotify streams — was the one that finally made her a household name. Two BRIT Awards in 2018, and the Grammys’ 2019 Best New Artist award followed.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan, but for a happy accident. Lipa was a confident singer, but the internet started picking up on her lack of stage presence. Taken out of context, her sometimes unenergetic choreography became a widely circulated meme; an object of camp mockery, sprinkled in with a little affection. Of course, that was a blessing in disguise — every popstar needs something to push against, to prove themselves with.

Knocked for not dancing well enough, Dua Lipa’s now moved all the way into dance music, from her house collaborations — Silk City’s ‘Electricity,’ Calvin Harris’ ‘One Kiss’ — to the full-on disco she finds herself in on this album.

Future Nostalgia arrived with a level of hype that most artists would die for.

Future Nostalgia arrived with a level of hype that most artists would die for. While Lady Gaga indefinitely postponed the April release of her album Chromatica, Lipa was forced to bring Future Nostalgia forward into late March — likely due to a full-album leak.

It became a moment of perfect synchronicity. Lipa instantly went from being an influence of Gaga’s to a peer, with the undisputed dance-pop album in a time where we need escapism more than ever. The hype isn’t unfounded… but is Future Nostalgia really the second coming of pop?

Did A Full 180

‘Don’t Start Now,’ the first single, hasn’t left the public consciousness since November. Currently number three on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s a joyful breakup song that doubles as a rebuke of her doubters: “If you wanna believe that anything can stop me/Don’t show up, don’t come out/Don’t start caring about me now!”

The message is clear — don’t get on the bandwagon — but the intricate disco arrangement, full of little rhythmic and melodic quirks, is irresistible. For the only time on the album, ‘Don’t Start Now’ reunites the team behind ‘New Rules’ — producer Ian Kirkpatrick and co-writers Caroline Ailin and Emily Warren, who leave their distinct, familiar mark on the song’s vocal melodies.

The first half of Future Nostalgia delivers hit after hit.

Lipa’s described the album as a “dancercise class,” and it is shorter and far more focused than her debut — especially its endless deluxe editions. The first half of Future Nostalgia delivers hit after hit. ‘Cool’ is a new wave-inspired track driven by funk bass and Lipa’s voice — pushed to its loudest in an irresistible chorus, and its softest in a bridge that shows off her sultry low alto.

‘Cool’ is also an excellent word to sum up Lipa’s persona and the timbre of her vocals. Though she largely sings big, hooky pop songs, her mood is almost always calm and collected — unlike anyone else in modern pop, except fellow British-Kosovan Rita Ora.

Which is why ‘Physical’ is such an obvious highlight — no song has ever pushed Lipa harder. It references the Olivia Newton-John song of the same name, but feels more like Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero,’ the way both songs constantly amp up their intensity.

But just as compelling as the belted chorus are Lipa’s hushed verses about proving commitment in a relationship: “Common love isn’t for us/We created something phenomenal/Don’t you agree?”

‘Physical’ comes with a dazzingly high-budget video sponsored by Pepe Jeans, with whom she has a signature line — where Dua dances graceful choreography. She’s no Britney or Janet, but that’s fine — whether it’s dancing or singing, all that matters in pop is that you put in the work.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can give ‘Physical’ is that it would’ve stood out if it had been released in the 1980s. Future Nostalgia’s time jump has been fitting for Lipa, someone whose old-school poise feels little like the aggressively down-to-earth relatability of younger Gen Z, TikTok-affiliated stars.

Not In The Past, Not In The Present

Lipa’s singing doesn’t feel retro at all, but nor does it feel especially current. There’s no hint of rap-influenced cadences, none of the triplet flow that’s all over Ariana Grande’s last two albums.

Considering the hype, many of the album’s tracks are surprisingly humble. ‘Levitating’ and ‘Hallucinate’ don’t go as big as ‘Physical,’ aiming instead for early 2000s pop-disco a la Kylie, Moloko. ‘Love Again’ and the third single ‘Break My Heart’ are both built around samples — respectively, White Town’s 1997 ‘Love Again,’ and INXS’ iconic ‘Need You Tonight’ — but neither new song sounds especially like its source material.

Future Nostalgia ends with two polarising tracks that, like them or not, most listeners already agree don’t fit the album’s theme. ‘Good in Bed’ borrows a little of Lily Allen’s bounce and sass, with very direct lyrics: “I dedicate this verse to/All that good pipe in the moonlight!”. 

‘Boys Will Be Boys’ closes out the album by upping the stakes further. On the track, Lipa addresses gender equality and misogyny — “I know that there will be a man around to save the day/And that was sarcasm, in case you needed it mansplained” — but her lyrics are undercut by every element of the composition.

Pop songs are rarely built to address the complex social or political issues directly.

Its orchestral strings and children’s choir aim to lend the track gravitas, but have no bite — only treacly sentimentality — while its sub-three minute length makes the album’s ending flourish feel flippant. The truth is, pop songs are rarely built to address the complex social or political issues directly.

It’s not that they can’t — Taylor Swift’s ‘The Man’ is scathing and catchy — but ‘Boys’ would have been far more subversive if it weren’t a Serious Issue song, set to a disco beat. Still, Lipa is very aware that she’s a role model for young girls, who could use a message that doesn’t pull its punches.

So, Where Is Dua Lipa Now?

So what do we want from our popstars, anyway? It’s easier to define Dua Lipa by what she’s not, rather than what she is. She’s not the most anything — the most flamboyant, most emotive, most trendsetting, most relatable. Where does that leave her in the landscape of popular music in 2020?

She’s a very traditional star, almost the polar opposite of a Billie Eilish, Halsey, even Madonna — popstars who roll their eyes at the system at any chance. Is it enough just to be a delivery system for bops?

The #1 question: is Future Nostalgia a classic, genre-redefining album? I would say no. But it is the right record for pop culture, at the right time. At only 24, it’s still early in Lipa’s career — there’s still so much further she could go.

It’s a very good transitional record that could be more cohesive and have more emotional depth. And though her vocals are self-assured, she’s yet to fully mature as a singer. There’s a third dimension to her voice and persona that you know will emerge given time.

Many songs crave to be taken to that next level of disco bliss but don’t quite get there. Ironically, the Live in LA remix of ‘Don’t Start Now,’ with its full band and strings laying down an expanded disco groove, is so transcendent that you wish every song had been given that treatment.

Future Nostalgia is exactly the album so many of us wanted — but didn’t know we’d need — in March 2020.

‘Future Nostalgia’ nearly gets there, ending with a mind-bending Jeff Bhasker jazz piano progression that suggests endless musical possibilities… but isn’t paid off anywhere else on the album.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Future Nostalgia’s easy listenability is an asset. So did Dua Lipa really save pop music? Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think it needed saving. With first-quarter albums by Halsey, The Weeknd, Grimes, Poppy, Selena Gomez — pop’s in a healthy state.

Future Nostalgia is exactly the album so many of us wanted — but didn’t know we’d need — in March 2020. And that’s the happiest accident of them all.


Richard S. He is 1/2 of the Melbourne pop duo ELLE, and an award-winning journalist. You can tweet him at @rsh_elle.