dua lipa
Women In Music

How Dua Lipa Brought the World to the Dancefloor — Amid a Pandemic

With 'Future Nostalgia,' the pop dynamo reimagined what an album campaign could be — all just part of her plan for “global domination.”

Back in June, Dua Lipa found herself in a very strange place: in a London Airbnb on text chains with some of her musical heroes. It had been an eventful spring, to say the least. Her flat in the city had flooded, so she had decamped to a temporary rental. Her hotly anticipated second album, Future Nostalgia, had leaked, forcing her to move up its release date by a week. And the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend not just her daily life but the months of work and planning she had put into the record. So you can imagine how she felt when Madonna and Missy Elliott started lighting up her phone.

Lipa, 25, had asked them to join her on a revved-up new version of her song “Levitating” for a remix edition of Future Nostalgia she was planning — and soon enough, the icons were sending over their raw vocals. “I definitely had those moments where I was like, ‘What do I say?! What should I reply?!’ ” she recalls breathlessly over Zoom one evening as she mimes typing out a message. It’s mid-November, and Lipa, dressed in a hot-pink hoodie, is a few days away from receiving six Grammy nominations — including nods for album, song and record of the year — and launching her livestream concert film, Studio 2054. (She begins our chat by announcing that she’s still a little sweaty from rehearsal.) “I still have that childlike excitement when working with my idols,” she says. “And I guess that’s just one of the things I’m so grateful for: The way the album was received is the reason why that door was open.”

Nicole Nodland
Miu Miu top and skirt, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes, Bea Bongiasca jewelry.

Future Nostalgia, released in late March, did more than open some doors. It catapulted this year’s Billboard Women in Music Powerhouse honoree to a new level of global stardom — and cemented her as a capital-A Artist with a vision and staying power. Her eclectic 2017 debut, Dua Lipa, had already made her one of pop’s most promising new hitmakers thanks to her smoky voice and sassy kiss-offs like “New Rules,” whose video has been viewed over 2 billion times on YouTube. But after winning best new artist at the 2019 Grammy Awards, Lipa was determined not to play it safe. As her pop-star peers took their cues from hip-hop and alternative music, she channeled the dancefloor sounds of the 1970s and ’80s on songs like lead single “Don’t Start Now,” a breakup anthem with a rubbery groove that made even her own team a little nervous.

“I wasn’t convinced that was the right first single,” says her manager, Ben Mawson, co-founder/co-CEO of TaP Music, whose roster also includes Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding. “I was worried that ‘Don’t Start Now’ was too Euro-disco and wouldn’t work at U.S. radio. And Mike Chester, [executive vp promotion] at Warner Records, said, ‘Don’t worry: The whole reason I love this song is that it’s fresh, and it’s going to change the face of U.S. radio.’ ”

He was right. The song kicked off a dance-pop revival on the charts and made a new fan out of at least one future collaborator: “After hearing it on the radio a few times, it made me look up more music from her, and I was like, ‘This artist has a vibe!’ ” says Missy Elliott. “It’s a sound I grew up listening to, and she has mixed it with a ‘millennial now’ sound that’s refreshing.” Thanks to its defiant hook and Lipa’s effortless cool, the song was equally popular with the kids on TikTok (where it inspired the #full180 meme, whose hashtag was viewed over 3 billion times) and the parents who drive them around listening to pop radio. (It topped the Mainstream Top 40 chart for six weeks.) And while “Don’t Start Now” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, it stayed in the chart’s upper echelon for so long that Lipa became its top female artist of 2020 anyway, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

With lyrics like “Don’t show up, don’t come out” and “I should’ve stayed at home,” Future Nostalgia also became an accidental quarantine soundtrack, even if clubs weren’t open to play it. But bringing listeners a little light in dark times was always Lipa’s goal. The album’s aesthetic was heavily influenced by the feel-good music her parents played at home when she was younger, like Jamiroquai, Blondie and Prince. Lipa had also fallen in love with the live arrangements of her first album and wanted to capture some of the warmth and muscle of her concerts.

“My first record, I was just constantly describing it as ‘dark pop,’ ” she says. “And then, at a point, it was hard for me to write songs unless it was about something sad. I felt like happy pop songs resulted in cheesiness. I wanted to get away from that and be like, ‘No, I can make something I’m really proud of that still reflects a happy, elated feeling.’ ” (That said, Lipa does ground Future Nostalgia’s empowerment anthems in reality: The midtempo closing track, “Boys Will Be Boys,” references walking home with keys between her fingers to ward off potential assailants.)

Nicole Nodland
Saint Laurent top, belt, skirt, earrings and bracelet, Bvlgari rings.

The timing of Future Nostalgia meant that Lipa became a test case for pandemic promo, taping greenscreens on walls and filming charmingly intimate late-night TV performances from various rooms. But as impressive as that content was, so too was everything that came after. In a year that has warped the collective sense of time, Lipa has kept a firm grip on the zeitgeist by treating the album format as source material ripe for reinterpretation. When her spring tour was postponed, she recruited DJ-producer The Blessed Madonna to assemble a guest-packed remix album, Club Future Nostalgia, then put the whole thing on YouTube as a continuous 52-minute clip. When it wasn’t feasible to shoot music videos, she commissioned animated clips. Later, as restrictions eased, she recruited DaBaby for yet another, even more joyous version of “Levitating” that reached the top 20 on the Hot 100 with help from a neon-lit video made in partnership with TikTok. “I don’t feel like an album should finish once it’s out,” says Lipa, who already has teased a Future Nostalgia B-sides set coming in 2021. “Yes, people can hear it, but you can still create such a fun world around it.”

For plenty of pop stars, releasing an album resembles the end of a marathon. Lipa’s debut looked a lot like that: By the time it arrived in June 2017, she had delayed it twice and put out half a dozen of its tracks. Then in July, she struck gold with “New Rules,” whose pastel-hued, choreography-heavy video became a viral sensation, pouring fuel on the album’s promotional campaign. She released a few more singles, jumped on collaborations with Calvin Harris and Silk City, then capped it off in 2018 with Dua Lipa: Complete Edition, a deluxe rerelease that added B-sides and extras to the original LP. The whole experience taught her to think of an album’s life span differently. Now, Lipa says with a wry smile, “We love to milk it.”

Nicole Nodland
Raf Simons top and skirt, Shay and Alan Crocetti rings.

Before the first edition of Future Nostalgia even arrived, Lipa was already planning its next permutations. While recording the album, she wrote a song called “Fever” but thought that its lithe, tropical beat didn’t fit with the other tracks, so she decided to save it for later. In October, she released it as a bilingual duet with Belgian singer Angèle, a star in her home country and France but largely unknown elsewhere. Lipa is no stranger to megawatt collaborations — she recently joined forces with Miley Cyrus for the glam-rock-tinged “Prisoner” — but she often makes unexpected choices that favor cross-cultural discoveries. In March, she released a remix of the Future Nostalgia hit “Physical” with South Korean singer Hwa Sa, then in August scored her first Hot Latin Songs No. 1 as a vocalist on “Un Dia (One Day),” an all-star team-up with J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Tainy that’s now a Grammy nominee for best pop/duo group performance.

“I don’t feel collaborations always have to be done with people that are already at the top of the game and killing it globally,” she says. “It’s cool to come together and open up a whole new audience. It makes my job even more exciting.”

Lipa’s global perspective is partly the product of her upbringing. The daughter of Kosovar Albanian parents, she was born and raised in England and spent several years in Pristina, Kosovo, before moving back to London by herself at 15 to pursue her singing dreams. Lipa got her start posting YouTube covers and networking with producers on social media, and she also credits her fans on Twitter with introducing her to acts like Blackpink, the K-pop girl group she later featured on Dua Lipa: Complete Edition, and identifying potential touring markets. Her favorite artists never played Kosovo, and she vowed not to neglect similar fans with her own tours. To promote Dua Lipa, she played a few shows in South America and made multiple treks to Asia — regions some pop artists neglect until later in their careers. “I always joked — but secretly, I really meant it — ‘Well, I’m on my path of world domination, so I have to be everywhere at once at the same time,’ ” she says, dusting off her hands.

Nicole Nodland
Miu Miu top and skirt, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes, Bea Bongiasca jewelry.

This year in particular she has proved that the responsibilities of global stardom go beyond music itself. On Instagram especially, she is vocal about issues she cares about: the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the deadly explosion in Beirut in August, LGBTQ rights around the world. (Sometimes this instinct gets her in hot water — like when a post intended to celebrate Kosovar Albanian identity was, as she put it in a follow-up, “misinterpreted by [some] who promote ethnic separatism, which I completely reject.”) “Because of my parents and their background, I feel like I’ve always been quite outspoken,” she says. “It does come and bite me in the arse a lot of the time, because people just go, ‘OK, you’re a singer, what do you know?’ But I think it’s an understanding of how small the world is getting, how what happens in America is going to affect the U.K., is going to affect the rest of the world.”

Thinking internationally is also a founding principle of TaP, which has offices in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney and (soon) Paris. The company, which also has recording and publishing divisions, often signs its artists to different label groups in different territories instead of securing global deals. Lipa is signed to Warner Music Group in most places and Universal Music Group in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “We’re very lucky they work well together — I don’t have to tell them to stop being mean to each other,” says Mawson. It’s an approach that ensures that TaP’s artists get the best support in major markets that have their own ways of doing business. (It also has the side advantage of making it easier to recoup separate advances.) “We look at the territories [where we’re] weak and put focus on them,” adds Mawson, “because true success is international success.”

Nicole Nodland
Miu Miu top and skirt, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes, Bea Bongiasca jewelry.

That’s where something like the most recent extension of the Future Nostalgia universe, Studio 2054, comes in handy. An ambitious, visually dazzling journey through the history of club culture, the show (with tickets under $20) wasn’t just a stand-in for a live concert — it was a savvy marketing tool for an artist whose biggest hurdle is arguably never staying on the ground long enough in any one market. Lipa wrote on Instagram that over 5 million people tuned in. “That’s a whole new business model that we should have thought of before,” says Mawson. “There’s a lot of work that goes into an hourlong show of that sort, but it’s something that we’re going to do once a year, irrespective of touring.”

With her world tour plans on hold — the Future Nostalgia tour has been rescheduled for fall 2021 — Lipa says she’ll soon start writing new music and planning what her next album will sound like. But even as she plots another reinvention, she’s not quite ready to let this album go just yet. “I’m talking to my team about, even once the deluxe is out, coming back to some songs off Future Nostalgia and putting them out as singles and making videos,” she says. There’s simply too much fun still to be had. In Dua Lipa’s world, the disco ball keeps on spinning.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.