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Review: Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

“I’m Dua Lipa, and I’m your freestyle dance teacher”. Perhaps an interesting entry-point into the British pop superstar’s work would be the selection of YouTube videos, memes, and Buzzfeed articles dedicated to chronicling her poor dancing. Onstage in 2018, it seemed that Lipa missed every beat. Comparisons to Sims characters, your aunty, and a seesaw ensued. In one performance, she managed to capture a two-step as awkward as the piano chords on Calvin Harris-assisted hit ‘One Kiss’.

The scent of staleness the fans picked up here might be indicative of a larger issue in Lipa’s career. This small moment in her dazzling breakout success story perhaps articulates a greater anxiety: that of whether an artist will be able to replicate their success – or is simply a ‘one-hit wonder’.

This episode shows exactly what can make the ‘difficult second album’ so difficult. It was clear that Lipa’s choreographed complacency would not cut the fat for long in a changing music industry. Online criticism can be a valuable currency, and Lipa has returned in 2020 with an intriguing 80s throwback record, voice-box and all.

Lipa breezes through 11 tracks and 37 minutes with no features, no production guest spots, and little filler. The concoction of dance-pop, funk and disco provides a refreshing slant on many modern pop music tropes: the thumping building pianos, the beat drop, the dance breakbeat, and soaring reverb codas, all recalibrated to fit Lipa’s sugar-rush aesthetic. ‘Break My Heart’ is built around a sample of the INXS classic ‘Need You Tonight’. Despite it being somewhat clumsily buried in the mix, Lipa manages to rein in the mathy crunch of the riff and deliver a fantastic vocal performance. The introduction of disco strings later in the track cement it as one of the highlights on the record.

Opening track ‘Future Nostalgia’ is perhaps the goofiest cut here, but it still manages to be charming. At points it feels like a game-show theme tune, with factory setting Yamaha drum-fills slapped on top, while the grungy, murky bass tones lurk underneath. Coupled with the feeling of creeping automation, this track delivers on the paradox of its title. The cheese-wire keyboard accents keep the track afloat amid Lipa’s baffling pop-cultural references in the lyrics. It works as an appetizer should, foreshadowing later moments of nostalgic synchronicity: the voice-box on ‘Levitating’, the power-balladry of ‘Boys Will be Boys’, the upright drum pattern of ‘Don’t Start Now’, the Bond-theme strings of ‘Love Again’. As nostalgia often does, the record goes to some unexpected places. The chorus of ‘Good in Bed’ channels Adam Ant, with a hint of Bananarama sass.

Yet this is very much a modern pop release. The success of songs like ‘Don’t Start Now’, with its Clean Bandit-esque take on baroque dance, showcase this record’s forward-thinking nature, while the vocal harmonies and chord progressions of songs like ‘Hallucinate’ and ‘Levitating’ feel more Billie Eilish than Billy Idol.

There is a sense of moonlit bravado to the darker moments in the track-list, adding illicit composure and maturity to the rose-tinted glance backwards. ‘Physical’ finds this paranoia in Top 40 form, with the soaring synth pad on the chorus providing one of the album’s best moments. This darkness is well-articulated by the album artwork, featuring a gloved-up Dua Lipa very much in the front seat. As she states on the opener, “I know you’re not used to a female alpha.” However, many of these stand-out moments are couched in clichés. At points Lipa seems unenthused – as though the sudden creative change of pace to crafting an authentic 80s ‘jukebox’ experience has left her short-circuited in some way. While reflecting creative ambition, it also perhaps inhibits some of the ideas present in these tracks. In this way, Future Nostalgia falls short of other recent 80s adjacent pop releases; the Weeknd’s After Hours, Christine and the Queens’ Chris, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E.MO.TION, to pick a few.

Many of these charming details deflate when looking at the bigger picture. ‘Cool’ sounds like a deep cut from Charli XCX’s ‘Charli’ sessions. There is sometimes a sense that Lipa is playing catch-up with her contemporaries in an age where female popstars are finding unprecedented critical acclaim and creative fulfilment in the ‘album’ format: Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, Janelle Monae, and of course Charli XCX. While Lipa provides a number of fantastic songs, this album fails to capture the same spontaneity that spearheads this trend, and it seems likely to figure as another forgettable pop release, its reach limited to workout playlists and the ‘trending’ shelf at HMV. Many tracks on Future Nostalgia leave something to be desired, and the downscale from the stadium to the dancefloor crowds out many of the potential ideas the record could have ran with. Not feeling kinetic is something you don’t want from a pop record. To continue the dancefloor metaphor, this feels more like a series of obscured bodies than a cohesive experience.

This release feels forced yet economical. Its moments of limpness are countered by moments of strength. But in any case, it has made a name for Lipa in discussion circles, and the attention it has received will give her access to new listeners. Perhaps the creative pivot has not yet come full circle, but these are far from diminishing returns. With time, she may be able to springboard to greater heights. Lipa is one to watch, and if you squint, the seesaw might just look like a trampoline.