Real ones knew Dua Lipa’s potential from her early YouTube remix days. Personally, the minute I heard her sultry lower register on a remix of Jamie xx’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” I knew I had to start paying attention to her. From blowing up Stateside with “New Rules” to scoring the most streamed female album of all time on Spotify (her eponymous debut album has 6.5 billion streams on the platform), Dua came out of the gate swinging with her first era. She followed that up with excellent high-profile collaborations (“One Kiss” with Calvin Harris and “Electricity” with Mark Ronson and Diplo’s Silk City project) that hinted at the sonic direction for her next record and two Grammy wins (Best New Artist and Best Dance Recording for “Electricity”).
Even though the foundation was there, no one was prepared for what Dua had in store with Future Nostalgia. This record is more than Dua leveling up; this is an artist zeroing in on a specific sound and concept and working at the height of their abilities to bring their vision to life. When “Don’t Start Now” was released, the explosive eurodance track blended slight disco influences and synthpop to create one of the best songs of 2019 and one of the best tracks of Dua’s career thus far. “Don’t Start Now” indisputably sits with those saccharine bites of pop perfection. Like Lady Gaga‘s “Bad Romance,” Katy Perry‘s “Teenage Dream,” and Ariana Grande‘s “Into You” before it, “Don’t Start Now” reaches the zenith of classic pop euphoria and unadulterated emotion. Future Nostalgia spends much of its relatively short runtime chasing that level of effortless greatness, and, despite a few small missteps, the album mostly achieves it.
Pop music is vital. Pop music is important. One of the primary goals of the genre is to provide escapism, and there is rarely a time when that isn’t needed. In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting global crises, many of us need a light and fun album to provide some light in our days of social distancing and quarantine. Future Nostalgia works as a complete unit because although it doesn’t take itself too seriously, there is obvious intention behind every artistic choice. The album borrows heavily from 80s synthpop, europop, disco, and dance-pop, but Dua makes the smart decision to keep the album short and sweet. There’s also a lot of early 2000s dance-pop and power pop; the vibe of Madonna‘s Confessions on a Dance Floor and Kylie Minogue’s Fever are all over this record. If there’s one primary strength that Dua and her collaborators flex on Future Nostalgia, it’s their ability to perfectly pace and craft a song. For example, “Cool” uses tom drums and handclaps to keep the swift pace of the earlier tracks despite the significant change in tempo. “Physical,” the album’s second single in most of the world, hurdles toward its finish line with expert utilization of funky synths and the techno beats of the Flashdance era. The track bears distinct sonic similarities to The Weeknd‘s “Blinding Lights,” another song that is representative of the 80s pop music revival in 2020. Perhaps the greatest example of pacing on Future Nostalgia is “Levitating.” One could call the track a standout, but nearly every track on Future Nostalgia is a standout. Every second of “Levitating” is better than the last, and it is this consistent build that makes each section of the song so incredible. Her cadence in the verses is smooth and catchy and the pre-chorus is the perfect catalyst for the transcendent hook. Speaking of pre-choruses, those are the real MVPs of Future Nostalgia. The title track, “Levitating,” “Pretty Please,” and “Love Again,” the best track on the album, all leverage the power and intensity that traditionally is housed in the bridge over to the pre-chorus. Dance-pop is all about explosive hooks and choruses, but those aren’t possible without the proper foundation of a strong pre-chorus. The chord progressions throughout this record are immaculate; Dua and her collaborators really nailed the execution of their vision in terms of production.
From the album photoshoot and music videos to the performances and singles, it is clear that Dua and her team had a clear vision for this album. Musically, that vision is executed nearly perfectly with some songs and haphazardly with others. “Love Again” with its almost erotic orchestral outro and touches of guitar, is easily one of the best songs of the year so far. Dua made a wise decision to pivot to 80s and disco-influenced dance-pop, it’s a natural fit for her smoky lower register. She uses the richness of her tone to her advantage on “Love Again” by adding another layer of texture to the intricately arranged track. One of Future Nostalgia’s primary drawbacks are the oftentimes cliché lyrics, but “Love Again” dodges that bullet. On the (many) songs that do fall into cliché, however, Dua pulls out these arresting, breathy, and sensual vocal performances that really sell the lyrics — no matter how tired some of them may be. Future Nostalgia could have also benefited from a slight rearrangement of the track listing. “Good in Bed” and “Boys Will Be Boys” are undoubtedly the two weakest songs on the album, and, thematically, “Boys” is an inadequate album closer. “Good in Bed” attempts to strike a bouncier and more carefree vibe while drawing on doo-wop melodies and cadences, but the chorus is, quite frankly, very jarring and annoying. Instead of trying to mix the two musical eras, Dua could have tried to bend the production more in the direction of traditional doo-wop influences to better complement the melody. On the other hand, “Boys Will Be Boys” tries entirely too hard to be an “anthem” and the lyrics are very weak. This sounds like a reject from Taylor Swift‘s Lover or Kesha‘s Rainbow, but with better and more ambitious production. “Boys” also ends the album on an awkward political note, when the album has staunchly been in the vein of apolitical pop futurism for all of its run.
Future Nostalgia is a truly stellar record. It’s even more impressive that this is only Dua’s second album and it’s a completely solo venture. Though at times the production overpowers her, Dua still remains in full control. She sounds absolutely gorgeous on every track, and she reminds us of the power of adhering to a concept in all aspects of the music making (and releasing) process.
Key Tracks: “Love Again”; “Don’t Start Now”; “Levitating”; “Hallucinate”