Future Nostalgia was meant for the club. This much is clear. Even before she released lead single “Don’t Start Now” last fall, Dua Lipa was talking about taking inspiration from the disco era: “I feel like you could dance through the whole record,” she told The Face. The British pop star has been working her way back to Studio 54 ever since her tropical-house jam “New Rules” broke big on both sides of the Atlantic, first delving into deep house on Calvin Harris’ hypnotic “One Kiss” and then euphoric piano-powered house on Silk City’s “Electricity.” By lending her commanding alto to retro party music of many stripes, she has established herself as England’s dance-pop queen, and maybe the world’s.
The new album might as well be her coronation. Future Nostalgia officially dropped last Friday, a week ahead of schedule thanks to a leak and the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Because COVID-19 is also keeping dance clubs, concert halls, and other public gathering places closed indefinitely, the album enters into a world where it cannot be experienced as intended. In another sense, it’s exactly the right album for a moment when everyone’s cooped up at home, wracked with anxiety: a bunch of high-gloss, low-stakes bangers engineered for maximum pleasure. Maybe you can’t bask in its glory in public yet, but it can still incite euphoria in the privacy of your home — and chances are, if you have any taste for pop music as an end unto itself, that’s exactly what will happen. Dula Peep did the damn thing.
The thing in question is not that deep. Most of the time, Future Nostalgia does not function as anything but a vessel for unadulterated fun. Less than a minute into the album, Lipa affirms her own power with the phrase, “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha,” later smirking, “I can’t teach a man how to wear his pants.” The tracklist ends with a clumsy but well-intentioned chamber-pop ballad about women’s struggles in this world, from the annoying (endless mansplaining) to the terrifying (the constant threat of sexual assault). “Boys will be boys,” she sings, “but girls will be women.” But for the most part, the anti-fuckboi principles spelled out on “New Rules” are shown, not told, via portraits of a strong independent woman navigating the dating landscape. These are songs about the emotional thrill ride of modern romance, built for dancing through whatever agony and ecstasy life’s throwing at you.
In keeping with its title, the album accomplishes this purpose by ransacking dance-pop history and repackaging those spoils in sleek modern production. To this end, Lipa leaned more heavily on live instrumentation to lay Future Nostalgia’s foundation. The bass is so gnarly you can imagine the facial contortions. Lockstep drums and piercing stabs of rhythm guitar feel like part of the same organism. Strings often sweep upward across the beat just as the drama is peaking. Keyboards surge, pound, and undulate in as many ways as the human body can move. Lipa’s self-titled debut was good, but in hindsight it feels like one of the last gasps of a moment when pop was trying to go indie and indie was trying to go pop. Completing her transition to dancefloor diva here, she steps into her destiny.
Disco and house are Future Nostalgia’s baseline, but Lipa and her producers — including “New Rules” architect Ian Kirkpatrick, pop and new wave legend Stuart Price, and a murderer’s row of current hit-makers including Julia Michaels, Tove Lo, Koz, Watt, and Jeff Bhasker — make a sport out of referencing specific moments from all across the pop timeline. The exhilarating “Physical” rips its title, concept, and core lyric from Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 mega-hit yet still somehow stands apart as a titanic achievement of its own. (It also works extremely well as actual workout music.) “Love Again” is built around the same Al Bowlly sample from White Town’s 1997 alternative hit “Your Woman,” that sped-up trumpet that sounds like Star Wars’ Imperial March. “Break My Heart” interpolates the leather-tight funk groove from INXS’s 1987 smash “Need You Tonight,” inverting the original song’s unquenchable lust with lyrics about anxious trepidation.
The album also serves as a stealth launchpad for the oncoming ’00s revival. It’s remarkable how often the nostalgia on Future Nostalgia seems focused on the aughts. “Love Again,” the one one with the White Town sample, also (perhaps without realizing it) quotes the chorus melody from the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha,” pasting it into an orchestral disco drama worthy of “Turn The Beat Around.” The slyly winking, piano-plinking “Good In Bed” could have been plucked from Lily Allen’s MySpace page. “Future Nostalgia” begins the album with Lipa evoking Gwen Stefani over a deconstructed synth beat apparently inspired by Timbaland’s work on FutureSex/LoveSound — this before blasting off into a stylistic overture that touches on plastic funk and gospel-house, laying the groundwork for the time-machine dance party to come.
All throughout, Lipa sings like the pro she is, bending her rich, versatile voice wherever the music demands. The title track glides from half-rapped taunts to belted-out melodies to whispery falsetto flurries. On the impeccable disco anthem “Don’t Start Now,” a kiss-off to a jealous ex, Lipa floats like a butterfly over the first half of the chorus (“If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody…”) then stings like a bee in the second: “Don’t show up, don’t come out/ Don’t start caring about me now.” She sounds great whether getting breathy amidst the synth-pop ice palace “Cool” or showing some grit on the pulse-pounding “Hallucinate.”
That’s the song that most resembles Lady Gaga, whose now-delayed Chromatica seems like it might mark a return to the dancefloor as well. The two albums might have made for an instructive contrast this spring. Lipa is not as extra as Gaga; her personality doesn’t consume these songs the way pop’s most distinctive characters do. She’s more composed and down-to-Earth, like an unfazed Adele. Even in moments of weakness like “Break My Heart,” Lipa sounds cool, calm, and collected in a way that keeps the songs from going over the top, sometimes to their detriment. Besides the tracklist’s quality dropping off a cliff at the end, this is Future Nostalgia’s Achilles heel: The album is so controlled, so note-perfect, that it rarely conveys the raw humanity that lends some of the best pop music an intangible electricity.
But we’re talking about the difference between an A-minus and an A-plus here. Lipa doesn’t need to lose her cool to be a masterful pop singer. More often than not, the suave, unflappable supermodel vibe works in her favor. Future Nostalgia is basically the platonic ideal of a big-budget pop album: catchy songs, powerhouse vocals, sparkling production, no barrier to entry. Someday, when people are getting together to dance again, these songs will destroy. Until then, they can give you some semblance of that feeling at home. Press play, get off your couch, and sweat out your worries and cares. Indulge in a different kind of future nostalgia than Lipa probably intended, imagining a distant someday when the good old days are back again.
The Weeknd is the undisputed king of this week’s Billboard charts. Not only does After Hours have the biggest debut of the year, “Blinding Lights” has ended Roddy Ricch’s run at #1 on the Hot 100. The Hot 100 news feels especially momentous given that Ricch’s good-not-great “The Box” has been locked in atop the chart for 11 straight weeks. “Blinding Lights” ends that streak, becoming Abel Tesfaye’s fifth career #1 in the process. (The others: “Can’t Feel My Face,” “The Hills,” “Starboy,” and “Heartless.”)
Tesfaye’s ascent bumps Ricch to #2, followed by Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” at #3 and the Weeknd’s former chart-topper “Heartless” at #4. Post Malone’s “Circles” remains omnipresent at #5, while Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” slides to #6. Harry Styles’ “Adore You” and Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions” hold steady at #7 and #8 respectively. Then comes Doja Cat’s “Say So” at #9, her first top-10 hit. And down to #10 is Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne.”
Per Billboard, After Hours debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 with 444,000 equivalent albums, the year’s biggest one-week total so far. Impressively, 275,000 of those units were actual album sales, a figure admittedly juiced by album-ticket bundles. Even more impressively, After Hours would have debuted at #1 with streaming alone thanks to 163,000 units derived from 220.7 million on-demand track streams. It’s the biggest week for an R&B album since Beyoncé’s Lemonade put up 653,000 units in 2016. After Hours becomes the Weeknd’s fourth #1 album following 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, 2016’s Starboy, and 2018’s mini-LP My Dear Melancholy.
After Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, and Bad Bunny comes a #5 debut for Conan Grey. The young pop artist’s debut album Kid Krow put up 49,000 units and 37,000 in sale in its first week. Roddy Ricch, Post Malone, and Jhené Aiko are up next, followed by the late Kenny Rogers at #9 with 2018’s 20-track compilation The Best Of Kenny Rogers: Through The Years — his best chart position since 1983. The Frozen II soundtrack rounds out the top 10.
PartyNextDoor & Rihanna – “Believe It”
PND’s new album Partymobile is one long vibe you can immerse yourself in. It’s real good. When understood in that context, so is “Believe It.” When understood as Rihanna’s first single in three years, it’s not nearly as satisfying.
Major Lazer – “Lay Your Head On Me” (Feat. Marcus Mumford)
When Avicii mashed up EDM and Mumford-core all those years ago on “Wake Me Up,” it was a lot more interesting than this.
Hailee Steinfeld – “I Love You’s”
True story: When I was a kid I used to despise “No More I Love You’s,” the Annie Lennox song interpolated here. I don’t even understand why — the nonverbal hook that kicks off the song just rubbed me the wrong way — but my distaste for it was enough of a known factor that my sister got me an Annie Lennox CD as a gag gift. Now I appreciate the original’s stately grandeur, so I am happy to hear it resurrected like so many classic pop songs before it, even if only for a merely-OK trap-pop exercise.
5 Seconds Of Summer – “Wildflower”
I can’t get over how this band that emerged with such a distinct identity has gone all-on on anonymous mercenary genre-jumping. That said, this ’80s pop turn is one of their best songs ever.
Kane Brown & John Legend – “Last Time I Say Sorry”
I am going to be finding bits of this sticky mushy gloop in my ears for months, and I ain’t happy about it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Tonight CBS will broadcast Homefest: James Corden’s Late Late Show Special. Corden will host from his garage and feature remote performances from BTS, Dua Lipa, and Billie Eilish. [Deadline]
- Finneas and his girlfriend Claudia Sulewski launched a podcast. [We Bought A House]
- Britney Spears Instagrammed that she ran a 100m dash in 5.97 seconds, which raised a lot of eyebrows, but then she deleted it and claimed she was joking. [Runner’s World]
- Bad Bunny dons drag in his new “Yo Perreo Sola” video. [YouTube]
- Maren Morris had a baby. [Twitter]
- Big Sean released a trailer for his new album Detroit 2. [YouTube]
- Sam Smith sang “What the World Needs Now Is Love” on Instagram. [Twitter]
- In lieu of the ACM Awards on 4/5, CBS will broadcast ACM Presents: Our Country, a special featuring at-home performances by Kelsea Ballerini, Kane Brown & John Legend, Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani, and many more. [CMT]
- Cardi B stars in a PSA from the NYC Census. [YouTube]
- Pitbull previewed his new coronavirus jam “I Believe We Will Win,” inspired by a popular soccer chant. [Twitter]
- Selena Gomez released a dance video for “Dance Again.” [YouTube]
- Shawn Mendes donated $175k to Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children to help fund emergency medical resources amid the coronavirus. [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
During lockdown, while many other artists are doing mini-concerts from their homes, I thought I’d do you all a favour and not.
— James Blunt (@JamesBlunt) March 25, 2020