Dua Lipa could have taken an easy path to sustaining her status as Britain’s most successful female pop star on album number two. A few Ed Sheeran co-writes, some savvy collaborations, 17 tracks (one for every Spotify genre playlist), a few on-trend lyrics about anxiety and skipping a party: deal sealed. But she’s done the complete opposite. The 11-track Future Nostalgia offers neither features nor filler, and makes a strident case for Lipa as a pop visionary, not a vessel.
The varying quality and sound of Lipa’s long-in-the-making debut was a real-time document of how modern pop stars have to evolve in public. Presumably emboldened by her success, on Future Nostalgia, Lipa sticks to the titular theme. Occasionally, too literally – the kitsch title track cites futurist American architect John Lautner, too arcane a reference for a pop song – but otherwise her fusion of disco and ruthlessly efficient contemporary pop is viscerally brilliant.
She anchors these songs with snappy basslines, then makes them transcendent, fully conveying the transformative nature of the romance she’s singing about: Levitating blooms like a row of tropical flowers, while the chorus of Hallucinate, Lipa’s own I Feel Love, seems to enter an interstellar dimension. The references are adroit – Prince-like synth sparkle here, a Gloria Gaynor nod there, giddy INXS sample on Break My Heart – and informed: sounding like a darkwave Olivia Newton-John remix, Physical is ostensibly about sex, but it’s so urgent and almost militaristic, it recalls the role of dance music in the Aids crisis, when physicality became a political position.
What Lipa’s powerful voice lacks in emotional nuance she makes up for with command: she never sounds like someone who’s “losing all my cool” (Cool), but she’s great at awestruck (Love Again), toxic allure (exes-with-benefits confession Good in Bed, which sounds oddly like early Lily Allen) and delicious spoken-word camp.
The grandiose closer, Boys Will Be Boys, a lament over male violence, could have used more of the latter: Lipa’s point would be better made with Queen-like cheek, not an earnest kids’ choir, but her one-off impulse to Make A Statement is the only predictable 2020 pop move on an otherwise outlandishly great second album.