Make absolutely no mistake: Dua Lipa has seen the videos.
You know the ones: compilations of her various dance fails and live missteps, misanthropic little packages of unpolished performance clips that only furthered the narrative that Lipa’s seemingly out-of-nowhere appearance on the pop charts was something that was manufactured and forced. Some thought she was an industry plant if there ever was one. “New Rules”, a 2017 earworm that didn’t fully take hold in America until nearly a year after its release, made her a sudden global phenomenon. But certain blocks of the pop literati felt that it was all fake, her objectively amateurish dance moves proving how unpolished and unprepared she was for stardom.
Flash forward almost two years, and it’s clear that Dua Lipa has not only seen those videos but also stopped caring about what you think. Premiering her snappy neo-disco single “Don’t Start Now” at the 2019 MTV EMA’s, she stood out in a field of backup dancers, nailing tight choreography and delivering a striking stage presence heretofore unseen. A few months later, she releases a second music video for the darkwave-indebted number “Physical” where she’s mocking ’80s workout videos and serving a horned up new vision of Olivia Newton-John. The haters can harbor their doubts, but the message is clear: Dua Lipa will never be subject to a terrible dancing compilation ever again.
All of these visual aids build-up to the release of Future Nostalgia, her second studio full-length, and an album that’s as musically revamped as her onstage persona is. While her eponymous 2017 debut was full of striking and empowering breakup numbers, Future Nostalgia trades on themes of flirtation and affection, riding thick funk bass and disco string sections to a sound that feels more uniquely her own, no doubt emboldened by the reception to her excellent collaborations with Diplo (“Electricity“) and Calvin Harris (the pop masterclass that is “One Kiss“). While Dua Lipa freely traded in contemporary pop tropes, Future Nostalgia mines her influences for an album that bristles with kinetic energy, a neon-soaked dance party that’s as goofy as it is thrilling.
Mere seconds into the opener “Future Nostalgia”, synth plinks and drum machines serve us pure vintage Prince energy. Meanwhile, her playful verses are adorned with vocoders and pitch-shifted backing vocals, that rhythm guitar bridge beamed in straight from a Vanity 6 record. “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha,” she notes, her confidence beaming. As Future Nostalgia unfolds, she tells lovers to go (“Don’t Stop Now”), gets high off of their love (album highlight “Hallucinate”, which shadowboxes with Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor), and realizes the relationship doesn’t work even though the sex does (“Good in Bed”). Even on “Break My Heart”, she realizes, perhaps too late, that she’s “falling in love with the one that could break my heart”, her stance vulnerable but knowing.
The strength of Lipa’s songwriting has improved so much that she’s willing to take more musical risks than ever before. Most of them work. The slick synth tones of “Cool” feel like they’re drawing from the same energy as Carly Rae Jepsen’s landmark 2015 record Emotion. The bass-and-click-driven “Pretty Please” features a vocal performance that is striking in its restraint, with Lipa never overplaying her hand given such a minimalist setting. Make no mistake, her risks are still very within the context of a 4/4 pop structure, but she still finds such color and joy in her surroundings it’s hard not to get swept up in her energy.
Such risk-staking, however, can still lead to a few moments that could’ve used a bit more polish. “Boys Will Be Boys”, her plucked-string closer, hits its themes of harassment with absolutely zero subtlety. Meanwhile, the playful piano pop of “Good in Bed” — its vibe akin to that of a Natasha Bedingfield song — has an octave-dropped chorus that will prove to be one of the most divisive songs of her career (it will probably be much more fun to sing along to in concert). The late-in-the-game track “Love Again” has a clever use of a “Your Woman” sample by White Town, and it’s the only thing that makes it stand out in on Future Nostalgia‘s less-focused side B.
We can forgive most of this, however, as Future Nostalgia proves to be more engaging and re-listenable than its predecessor. The record delivers a bevy of new pop classics in a style that’s playful and assured. Lipa positions herself less as a label-serving chart diva and more as a creative driving force for the future of dance music. People may have mocked her in the past, but now that we live in the era of Future Nostalgia, no one is laughing at her anymore.