Dua Lipa kick-starts her second album with the line, “you want a timeless song, I wanna change the game.” Seemingly a manifesto for the album ahead, it suggests a mould-breaking album, a complete departure from the pop-sphere and a playground of experimentation. What’s ironic is how far from the truth this opening salvo actually is. On Future Nostalgia, instead of forging a new path, Dua Lipa presents a set of 11 songs which perfect the game instead of changing it. The album is front-to-back pop perfection, not so much a landscape of experimentation but instead one of perfect honing of the 80s revivalisms she emulates; in the process, curating a set of timeless songs she originally chides the listener for wanting.

The truer mission statement comes later in the opening song and title track: “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha.” While delineating a lot of the empowering subtext that’s present throughout the album, the line also defines Dua’s place in the Pop landscape at this moment. During the late 2000s and throughout the 2010’s, one thing has been missing: a female Pop icon with critical and commercial support in equal bucket loads. This time period seemed to offer either one or the other: commercial acclaim seen with the likes of Katy Perry, or critical acclaim as seen with the likes of Björk. While both artists operate in the same vagueness of the pop-genre, the two aspects of commendation never seemed to coexist in any meaningful way. A fitting example of the previous decades achieving this was with Madonna, someone who regularly broke the charts for three decades and enjoyed the same amount of lauding from critics. Dua Lipa seems to have taken up this mantel with Future Nostalgia.

The album is loaded with singles which all broke the top fifty on the charts in both the UK and America and are all surrounded by complimentary support from music journalists. It’s an interesting place to be for Dua Lipa but she rides on the coattails of previous pop divas and takes her place as the rightful Pop leader of this generation with her second album. All this is perhaps mythologizing somewhat but the sheer presence of Dua Lipa is hard to ignore in public life. Songs from an album released two years ago are still making headway on radio and in commercials. The longevity of Pop music is seldom longer than a year yet the staying power of Future Nostalgia’s singles are indicative of a work which has had extraordinary staying power.

Catchiest of all is the album’s fifth single, ‘Levitating’..The song builds to its monumental chorus which immediately becomes ingrained in your mind. It’s an embodiment of the sugary perfection the album hones with its tracks.
– Kieran Baddeley

The album achieves this longevity through a mix of the comforting embrace of 80s revivalisms and catchy, sticky song writing. Catchiest of all is the album’s fifth single, ‘Levitating’. Over a modulated voice backing and hand-clap percussion, the song builds to its monumental chorus which immediately becomes ingrained in your mind. It’s an embodiment of the sugary perfection the album hones with its tracks. While the sounds of the low-in-the-mix guitar on the bridge and disco-esque “yeah, yeah, yeah’s” throughout may be extraordinarily familiar in a Pop world dominated by this sort of decades old mimicry, even this, most comfortable of music styles, can’t undercut great song writing.

One thing that pins the album squarely in the 80s is the bass which anchors ‘Levitating’ and most of the other songs. It punctuates the loping verses of lead single ‘Don’t Start Now,’ provides the only accompaniment to Dua’s vocals in the first verse of ‘Break My Heart’ and haunts the foundations of the album’s best song, ‘Pretty Please.’ The slap-bass, synthesised or genuine, is something that’s been less prevalent with the rising trend of 80s emulation but Future Nostalgia corrects this omission ten-fold.

Not just providing a musical context however, it suggests a writing-forward approach to the album that’s missing in many high-profile pop albums. Rather than beginning with a chorus and working back with lessening degrees of importance through the rest of the song, the prominent bass belies an artist working from the ground up; creating a strong foundation on which to place the monumental hooks, allowing the songs to actually hold up under greater scrutiny. With around eleven producers across the whole album, this sort of sonic cohesion is evident of an artist with an actual vision, holding together a collection of tracks which, despite jumping genres slightly, stay in the same lane as one another.

The production across the myriad producers that litter the album however is an achievement in itself, referencing both INXS and White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ in some of its samples. The use of negative space in particular is striking. Many of the songs verses rely on an empty void of vocals and bass, while the more musically stifled songs have their mixing down perfectly. Notice how ‘Physical’, even in its ecstatic chorus, maintains this monochromatic clarity, each building block clearer than the last. The undulating synth line, wispy keys and high pitched synth line (reminiscent of the opening pan-flute on Peter Gabriel’s 1986 ‘Sledgehammer’– more sonic heritage to trace the album back to) all slot together perfectly, their outlines drawn in thick black marker against a beautiful palette of purple and red synths. The same effect is evident on another album highlight, ‘Hallucinate’, where its busy chorus uses a similar bed of clipped percussion and clearly delineated synth to offset the song’s dreamy intention. Another song writing standout, it uses its cyclical chorus and “my, my, my’s” to further pull you into its druggy, hallucinogenic effect, all without the mix becoming at all muddy.

Dua Lipa has achieved her sonic identity with the retroactivity outlined in the album’s title, but has yet to establish her own identity as a wordsmith.
– Kieran Baddeley

However, there is one rather large issue with the album, we still don’t know who Dua Lipa is. Despite the album’s strong sonic identity, the identity of the star on the cover is somewhat obscure. Yes, the song-writing is a tour-de-force in how to write a catchy, successful pop song with a spine, yet it’s lyrical preoccupations leave a little be desired. Dua seems more confident in painting with broad strokes of love, heartbreak, sexual attraction and fun rather than turn a more intricate brush to herself. Her lyrical identity is hidden behind basic platitudes which, despite allowing the listener to insert themselves into the song, offer nothing more than the usual populist fodder. The album’s sonic intricacies and monumental hooks could have allowed for a deeper examination of who Dua Lipa is behind the Pop Diva aesthetic she has cultivated for herself. She doesn’t have the joyful permanence of someone like Carly Rae Jepson nor the self-preferentiality of her cultural placeholder Madonna. ‘Future Nostalgia’ contains no guest features like her self-titled debut and one would hope this would be evident of a greater examination of self but it falls short in this area alone. Dua Lipa has achieved her sonic identity with the retroactivity outlined in the album’s title, but has yet to establish her own identity as a wordsmith.

Where the façade lifts slightly is on the album’s bookending tracks. The title track is a deliberately wonky electro-funk number and the album’s most sonically diverse track. Across its raucously fun three minutes, Dua exhibits a come-at-me confidence that’s missing from the rest of the album. It taunts and mocks the listener in the best way possible. She’s confident and striding in her sense of self. What the track is retorting to isn’t immediately obvious but this kind of grand stand of self-confidence is the sort of artistic identity that suits Dua Lipa perfectly.

Closing out the album is the track ‘Boys will be Boys.’ Across a bed of gorgeous strings and piano, Dua Lipa makes the most of her globally reaching platform with a fierce and scathingly true rebuke of the patriarchy and the men who live under it. “Boys will be boys, but girls will be women” goes the song. In a world actively geared against women, it’s a harsh truth that girls have to become women in order to survive in a violently male-dominated world. No lines on the album ring quite as loudly as “its second nature to walk home before the sun goes down” or “we hide our figures doing anything to shut their mouths” or “no, the kids ain’t alright.” It’s a plain and simple call out to male violence both domestically and sexually and the culture which continues to breed generation upon generation of boys who are conditioned to perpetuate the cycle further. It’s a bare-boned plea for change and closes the album on a stunningly discordant note with the rest of the album’s themes. Can we hope for this sort of monumentality every time Dua Lipa releases an album? No. But these small moments of an artist using their platform for good, could be a call-sign for greater identity in her song-writing in the future.

‘Boys will be boys’ may not be the best song melodically or sonically on the album but its message is the most important. Future Nostalgia spends most of its time looking backwards, but in its closing moments it looks to the future. It’s a call for change at the end of an album that refuses to change and it hits all the harder for it. Dua Lipa has become the de-facto Pop Star of this generation and if ‘Boys will be boys’ is anything to go by, she has a lot more yet to say.

Despite what it’s title track suggests, Future Nostalgia will be seen as a timeless album, a set of pop songs which are too catchy and ebullient for their flame to die down. If she peels back the façade even further in her lyrics, Lord knows the power her music could hold.