Album Review: Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia
To two of my co-workers, one of whom is slightly more interested in pop music than the other, I describe Future Nostalgia, the sophomore release from Dua Lipa the exact same way—I tell them both that no album should legally be allowed to be this much fun.
Future Nostalgia, spread across 11 tracks and a concise running time of less than 40 minutes, is an auspicious and bold statement, and the kind of unrelenting energy and confidence that Lipa manages to pack into that space is as impressive as it is intimidating. No album, from beginning to end, should be this good, and no album, second or otherwise, should be this sure of itself—but in both instances, it is.
Who is Dua Lipa?
Until recently—like, very recently, after the slow roll out leading up to Future Nostalgia had already started with the release of singles “Don’t Start Now” in November, the album’s titular track in December, and the extremely bombastic, frenetic “Physical,” at the end of January—I am uncertain I really even know who Lipa was, save for seeing her name in a handful of headlines on music sites.
All of 24 years old, Lipa’s rise to fame has been slow but gradual, beginning in her teenage years when she began posting cover songs on YouTube and a brief career as a model; London born and of Kosovo Albanian descent, Lipa first inked a deal with a management company in 2013, followed in 2015 with her signing to Warner Brothers. Over the next two years, Lipa began issuing singles, gaining attention, and it culminated in the release of her self-titled debut album in 2017 (reissued as a deluxe edition at the end of 2018.)
Arriving to acclaim as well as myriad award nominations and wins worldwide for Lipa—earning the Best New Artist award at the 2019 Grammys—Future Nostalgia takes everything Lipa did on her self-titled effort, but throttles it into a place of enormous new heights that is just so fucking astounding in how precise its focus is. From the moment it starts with electro-infused, partially robotic slithering of the titular track, to the sweeping and grand anthem of women’s empowerment that it concludes with, “Boys Will Be Boys,” “Future Nostalgia” is more than just the title of the album, and it’s more than just an idea in contrasts—it’s the conceit for the entire sonic landscape of the record.
Pulling influences from places like the tightly wound funk and disco from the 1970s (listening to this album with headphones, you can hear the detail to the bass work), the most obvious nods are to 1980s pop—Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” from 1981, plays a major role—but the shimmering, glossy keyboards and reverb soaked drum machine patterns from that era are everywhere on Future Nostalgia. Also owing a little to the 1990s (“Your Woman” by White Town1 also plays a big part in the album), and even in, more or less, wearing its influences unabashedly on its sleeves, it never comes off as derivative. You can call it an homage if you want, but Future Nostalgia is one of the most earnest—and more importantly, fun—records I’ve come across in a very long time. It’s self-aware, at times self-effacing, at times very very sexually charged, but it also impressively straddles that line of not taking itself seriously at all, and actually having some depth.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Future Nostalgia, aside from its infectious songwriting and incredibly slick production values and sound, is how it is structured; it’s one of those rare albums—specifically speaking about albums operating under the banner of ‘pop music,’ that can be separated out into singles, or moments that are more well executed than others. In turn, it is also an album that works extremely well as a whole. Even the songs that, for me, are not as successful, still work within the context of the album from beginning to end.
My name’s on the tip of your tongue—keep running your mouth
Future Nostalgia opens with its titular track, serving as a bit of a mission or thesis statement for the rest of the record to unfold after it. Massive in its sound, lyrically it finds Lipa at, arguably, her most confident, or at least cocky—“You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound,” she sings on the song’s refrain, shortly before arriving at the hypnotic, mantra-like phrase, “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha.”
The song is a smart first track, setting the stage for things to come, and luring the listener in almost immediately with its massive sound—enormous sing-a-long moments (when the chorus hits, of course) but you feel the urge to move your body almost immediately as soon as the electrified, rollicking funk groove washes over you. It, however, even as a single from the record, as fun and infectious as it is, is not one of the album’s best, or ‘perfect pop moments.’
The perfect pop moments—either specific instances within songs, or a song in its entirety—are not in short supply as Future Nostalgia continues on its upward trajectory. Lipa, as a performer and songwriter, never really lets up, allowing the album to build and build, but impressively, never loses control of the dizzying, technicolor atmosphere she’s created. “Don’t Start Now,” the album’s second track, finds Lipa balancing a thick, disco-inspired slither during the verses as well as the song’s chorus, with in what I believe is called the ‘pre-chorus,’ there is a huge, transcendental build up that drops the beat out completely, and over outrageously large, spacious piano chords, and blippy synths Lipa belts out—“If you don’t want to see me dancing with somebody….If you want to believe that anything could stop me,” before everything comes to a halt as she deadpans “Don’t show up,” and the bass line and drums come kicking back in.
This is a trick she returns to as the album nears its conclusion on “Break My Heart.”
Future Nostalgia more or less hits its stride of being non-stop fun, and an unrelenting dance party as it heads into its middle portion with the space-travel romance of “Levitation,” which includes some slight rapping on the part of Lipa, the 100% in earnest use of the expression “You want me, I want you baby—my sugar boo, I’m levitating,” and one of the album’s most musically explosive “everybody on the dance floor with their hands in the air” moment during the chorus.
That is a trick she returns to again and again, like throughout the entirety of the woozy, club-ready anthem “Hallucinate,” which may just be the album’s most intense track; or, on the highly energized “Love Again”—the song structured around an aforementioned, very recognizable sample, where a glossy string arrangement, the accessibility of late 90s and early 2000s Top 40 pop music, and an ABBA aesthetic all collide into something that propels you out of your seat, and sends you flailing around wildly to the rhythm.
“Love,” or at least the idea of love, has been the basis of song lyrics since, like, the beginning of time—so it should come as no surprise to you that love, or in many cases, lust, is at the core of the material Future Nostalgia; however, the love Lipa writes about isn’t always depicted in the greatest of lights, specifically in the album’s final few tracks. On “Love Again,” she, with a little bit of remorse in her voice, sings, “God damn, you got me in love again”; immediately after that, on “Break My Heart,” she asks, “Am I falling in love with the one who could break my heart?”
Lipa flirts with the lusty, or the more ribald side of romance throughout the album—“Who needs to go to sleep when I got you next to me?,” she asks, point blank on the electrified, highly energized “Physical2”; or, later on within the slinky, seductive funk of “Pretty Please,” commands, “I need your hands on me.” But it’s on the whimsical “Good in Bed” that Lipa reaches her most sexually charged, as one might expect from the title. The most novel sounding of all the songs on Future Nostalgia, “Good in Bed” is built around a jaunty piano riff, as Lipa waxes about if sex is the only thing that kept her in a relationship—winking as she deadpans “I want to dedicate this verse to all that good pipe in the moonlight,” at the beginning of the song’s second verse, as well as the difficult to misinterpret lyrics of the bridge: “We don’t know how to talk; but damn, we know how to fuck.”
With an album like this, there are countless infectious melodies, shuffling grooves, and big ‘pop moments’ to note, but Future Nostalgia’s most noteworthy, and strongest moment arrives early on, in the somewhat unassuming form of “Cool,” the record’s third track.
Less direct in its slick bombast when compared to some of the other songs on the album, “Cool” is one of the most directly inspired by the sounds of the 1980s—right down to its use of skittering electronic drum programing, a taught bass line that really shines in the song’s stripped down refrain, and the shimmering, playful, bouncing keyboards that sound like a city street full of neon lights, slowly reflecting off of a car passing by.
It’s “Cool”’s ‘pre-chorus3’ though, that made the song stand out as the strongest on the album, even during my initial listens through the album—the primary beat drops out, if only temporarily, and is replaced with a finger snap to keep time, and the lighter synth array that pings throughout the song is swapped out with something lower, mirroring the manipulation that you can hear having been applied to one of the many, many layers of Lipa’s vocal tracks. Lyrically, this section is very simple—“And the color of the sky looking nice-o-nice—you know, you know you know. Baby, I could see us in the real life—you know, you know you got…”
But there’s something about this moment; something partially unexplainable. Maybe it’s the way all of those elements tumble together for a very brief moment before Lipa tosses us back into the song with what can only be described as a sassy refrain—but the song, itself, as a whole, is the album’s perfect pop moment from beginning to end, and that pre-chorus, lasting all of, like, 10 seconds total, is an additional layer of surprising, flawless pop beauty.
Lyrically, “Cool” is a look at the nervousness that comes from a budding relationship—“We’ve been up all god damn night,” Lipa sings, with a bit of a rasp in her range in the song’s first verse; “Keep it going til we see the sunlight.” “Cool,” in a sense, is all of the thematic elements from Future Nostalgia wrapped into one three and a half minute pop song. The protagonist depicted has already found her way into bed with this new partner, but even if they are ‘good in bed’ together, she has developed feelings extending beyond that, and is hoping for something more. “You got me losin’ all my cool,” is the line returned to the most in the song’s chorus, though it’s followed by what comes off as a bit of a throw away line—“I guess we’re ready for the summer.”
In the Genius annotation for “Cool,” Lipa describes it as a very romantic, summery song about ‘meeting someone has has you losing all your cool.’ It isn’t so much the antithesis or inverse to it, but conceptually, as well as aesthetically at times, it shares a number of similarities to “Cruel Summer,” though here, there is much less palpable uncertainty and borderline remorse over this romance in comparison to what is found in Swift’s slice of pure pop perfection from last year.
Future Nostalgia comes a strange time.
Recorded long before a worldwide pandemic but released at a time when people are being asked to stay in their homes and practice ‘social distancing,’ the album, unknowingly, bears the burden of wanting to bring people together while they have to remain apart.
Recently, a shared true love and appreciation of pop music became the thing that a handful of my co-workers and I were able to connect over. Talk of Future Nostalgia began prior4 to the album’s official release, but our shared excitement over it now occurs through text messages or responses to Instagram stories, or in some cases, through my boss playing “Cool” off of YouTube at her desk, while we both remain more than six feet apart, dancing in a slightly more restrained way5 than either of us are used to.
Future Nostalgia comes at a strange time—the expression itself of course serving as a conceit for the album’s convergence of sounds and aesthetics, but now that it is out in the world, it can be representative of something much larger: we, as people, are nostalgic for what we inadvertently took for granted, as well as longing for the time when this is all over.
If you’re looking at pop music using Aristotle’s Poetics6, it inherently relies on the last element of the list—spectacle, and yes Future Nostalgia is a spectacle, but in the same breath, it is also spectacular. Not exactly an enormous ‘artistic statement,’ it is still enormous in its scope and ambition, as well as in its self-assuredness. Future Nostalgia is one of those records that continues to show you don’t always have to take yourself so seriously, and that while you may gravitate towards music that pulls a visceral, sad reaction out of you, there are things that provide the opposite, and as jarring as it can be (to somebody like me) to have a legitimate good time, Future Nostalgia provides that, and it makes it seem so effortless as it does so.
Future Nostalgia comes at a strange time—it’s the kind of windows down, speakers up album that you want to listen to with a group of your closest friends so you can wild the fuck out; instead, you are left shuffling back and forth to it from the quiet of your own kitchen, or from the driver’s seat of an otherwise passenger-less car. But in those moments, and in the moments found within the album—those moments of surprising pop music perfection, Dua Lipa has provided us with a slight glimmer of hope that things will, hopefully, eventually, get better, and until then, we have this record, bringing us together while we are apart.
1- Turns out, and I didn’t know this until recently, that the trumpet line in “Your Woman” is lifted from “My Woman,” by Al Bowlly, recorded in 1932.
2- An aside: for what it’s worth, while “Physical” is a gigantic sounding song and works just fine within the context of the rest of the record, I find it’s synthesizer line to be a little ominous and it’s truthfully not one of my favorites on here. Also, I've noticed that it has some big early-Lady Gaga energy, which is fine. It's just something I have picked up on the more I've listened to it.
3- For some reason, this is a term that really bothers me. I just wanted to mention that.
4- Big shout out to Josh and Madeline. They know the fucking vibes.
5- Shout out to Andrea who always reads the footnotes but also, in the last year, I have learned countless things from her, and one of them is about wildly flailing around to music, and for that simple action, I am indebted.
6- I know for a fact this is not the first time I have referenced the Poetics in a piece, and it certainly won’t be the last. This is where I flex my borderline useless degree in theatre on all of you.