To say Dua Lipa has come a long way from performing to around a hundred people in DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel would be an understatement. Then, she was an artist on the rise, bringing her music to clubs around the nation and breaking through the charts. Now, she’s ascended to the top, and her sophomore album Future Nostalgia is all about taking it back to a time before music was synthetically created and digitized — but still adding that future spin to things. The result is an album that takes the best of the past and molds it into something else entirely; the poster child for ‘throwback’ music, if such a thing were to ever be its own genre.
The album’s titular track is also its opener, and Lipa sets the tone for the record quickly. “You wanna turn it up loud? Future Nostalgia is the name,” she croons in the song’s opening. Lipa flexes her ability to create catchy tracks, while reminding the listener her style and sound are inimitable. Writer and producer Jeff Bhasker beautifully blends the song’s bold and cheeky lyrics with fun and imaginative instrumentals that give the song a unique blend of genres, perfectly befitting the song and album’s name.
‘Don’t Start Now’ brings a disco element to Future Nostalgia as Lipa croons about a relationship gone sour. It’s funky and entirely the opposite of what you’d expect her to release compared to her debut album. It’s a song that almost instantly gets stuck in your head (helped in part, no doubt, by its constant radio presence.) Despite not feeling like it fits in Dua Lipa’s typical wheelhouse, the song, at its core, is very much like the rest of her music, just set against a different instrumental backdrop.
Lyrics remain clever and punchy, ever relatable as Lipa goes from feelings of lament and regret to reinvigoration as she puts her cares behind her. The song’s retro style paired with its thoroughly modern lyrics come together to bring the track relatability and rhythym.
The rapidfire dancing takes a brief respite with ‘Cool,’ a song that features Lipa writing alongside Tove Lo. While the album’s previous tracks felt entirely different sonically for Lipa, ‘Cool’ takes things even further, making it no surprise that she initially didn’t want to record the track. Speaking with Apple Music, she said, “My A&R played me this song two years ago, and I instantly hated it. I was like, ‘Please never play me this again.’ But a year down the line, when I was writing, he sat me down and was like, “I have something to play you.” And he just played the instrumental and I was like, ‘This is actually really good with no lyrics.'”
Her decision to record ‘Cool’ embraces the album’s themes of stepping out of your comfort zone and moving forward with the unexpected. “It has some Prince influences, and it was a range of my voice I hadn’t tried,” Lipa noted to Apple Music. The influences are apparent, and ‘Cool’ is every bit the breezy, summer romance song. That said, it’s far from the album’s best.
‘Physical’, on the other hand, is a strong entry in Lipa’s songbook, with its clever interpolation of the Olivia Newton-John song of the same name. ‘Physical’ feels like it captures the Future Nostalgia feeling wholly, taking something from the past that still remains relevant 40 years later and rebranding it for a 2020 audience. Love it or hate it, ‘Physical’ is in your face like any perfect pop song should be.
Now in full swing, Future Nostalgia continues with ‘Levitating.’ This one feels like a wild British pop ride from yesteryear, if the Spice Girls and Blondie had a wild child. “Glitter in the sky, glitter in my eyes. Shining just the way I like,” Lipa quips. ‘Levitating’ is fun and enjoyable, another track that lives up to the album’s name, despite not really feeling like there’s a signature Dua Lipa stamp on it.
‘Pretty Please’ slows the album’s tempo down for a few minutes, seeing Lipa wrangle with anxieties and insecurities. “Hate it when you leave me unattended/ ‘Cause I miss ya, and I need your love/ When my mind is runnin’ wild/ Could you help me slow it down?” It’s much more of a slow jam, and Lipa continues to experiment sonically.
With exploring change and progression the name of the game, Lipa continues to experiment on the album’s other tracks. ‘Hallucinate’ brings the 90’s back, feeling very much like a turn of the century track where hype for the 21st century exploded. It’d be right at home on the soundtrack for a Xenon movie.
With ‘Love Again,’ Lipa samples White Town’s ‘Your Woman,’ continuing the album’s forward trend into the 90’s from earlier 80’s sounds. This one’s undeniably a bop, though, thanks to less filters and instrumentation fiddling with Lipa’s voice. This one feels more raw, especially with its heartfelt lyrics. By the time the refrain comes around, you’re ready to listen to this one again.
An unexpected INXS sample comes on ‘Break My Heart,’ as Lipa returns to the dance floor to ponder her relationship choices once more. It works perfectly, breathing life into the track and allowing Lipa to put her on signature on this one. While other tracks have varying degrees of success in capturing a unique sound that harkens to the past while putting a futuristic spin on it, songs like ‘Break My Heart’ manage to do it perfectly, likely thanks to the iconic samples that bring instant recognizability to the songs, making it easier for Dua Lipa to spin them in her favor.
While other tracks experimented with instrumental sounds, ‘Good in Bed’ sees Lipa experimenting more lyrically, offering bold and sexually explicit lyrics that are quite a turn from the usual love songs or implied sexual innuendo. It’s a much more modern and typical pop song, especially as artists like cupcakKe teeter on the mainstream. “You always let me down, boy/ But when you’re going down, I get so up,” Lipa sings frankly. Lyrics are clever and well thought out, but the song is plagued by its chorus, a cacophony of repetition that is discordant to the rest of the song’s flow.
Future Nostalgia comes to a close with the short ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, a song that confronts female empowerment from a different angle. “I talk so much about female empowerment, but I’d never done a song which really talks about the growing pains of what it’s like to be a woman. I was in the studio with the team I wrote “Physical” with, and was just talking about what it was like to get off the bus from school and walk home, knowing that there’d be boys on bikes around the estates, and that I’d be so fucking shit scared in case they would catcall or chase me home or whatever,” Lipa said to Apple Music.
She continued, “For girls at school, there was always that fear of trying to get home before it got too dark. I can’t believe that I had to actually put keys through my knuckles, like Wolverine, in case anybody might say something or try to chase or attack me. It’s crazy that we have to think about these things and not feel safe for a three-minute walk down the road from the bus stop to your flat, and I feel we maybe don’t educate the boys enough to understand what it’s like to be a girl.”
‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is hardly a ‘futuristic’ or ‘nostalgic’ song, but it brings the album to a nice and thoughtful close. With the rest of the album so full of exploration into different sounds and genres, it’s nice to end on a simpler note with a song that offers much food for thought.
The rapid experimentation that comes from song to song will either be something listeners enjoy or don’t care for. Is it a sophomore slump? Hardly — while Lipa’s breakthrough debut was more cohesive, Future Nostalgia is bolder and more fearless. While some of the tracks fizzle out, especially compared to the well-picked singles, they still serve their purpose to allow Lipa to change up and explore her sound. It would’ve been nearly impossible to make music that was similar but yet progressive to songs like ‘New Rules’ or ‘Blow Your Mind.’ So why bother? While Future Nostalgia has its ups and downs, it’s largely a success for Lipa. Now that the fears of a follow up album are over, she can continue to refine her sound and keep dominating the radio.