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.)
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.”