For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 all this week and next. At No. 9, we remember the year in Dua Lipa — who was once again everywhere with her Future Nostalgia album, ending up with the biggest Hot 100 hit of 2021.
Over the last year, Dua Lipa has proven herself not only as a still-rising global star, but one who could dominate in what would be considered an off-cycle year for most pop artists, after releasing her sophomore album in March 2020. Lipa started the year out stronger than ever, still reeling from the success of the glitzy, disco-inspired Future Nostalgia and its hit singles (“Don’t Start Now,” “Physical,” and “Break My Heart”), which made her a pop titan in 2020. It might have seemed like the Future Nostalgia era was beginning to go stale nearly a year after the album dropped, but thanks to Lipa’s staggering star power, she was able to keep herself front and center throughout 2021.
In February, she dropped a reissue of the album, subtitled The Moonlight Edition, a collection of b-sides from Future Nostalgia. The release featured a number of remixes and new tracks, including the reggae-tinged “We’re Good” – which arrived with a bizarre, Titanic-influenced music video, taken from the point of view of a lobster. The modest success of “We’re Good,” which peaked at No. 31 on the Hot 100, proved Lipa’s range when it comes to exploring other musical styles, and even going out of her comfort zone creatively to try something different for her visuals.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
This was all a precursor to her triumphant Grammy performance in March, of the painfully catchy megahits “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now” which highlighted Lipa’s impressive choreography during her show-stopping performance. (Lipa later thanked her fans for “bullying” her into becoming a better dancer after her infamous “go girl, give us nothing” Jingle Ball performance that was heavily memed.) Later that night, Lipa snagged a Grammy for best pop vocal album for Future Nostalgia, her third career win at the awards.
Despite never reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Levitating” proved to be a stable success, as it sat comfortably on the Hot 100 all year long. It became a 2021 anthem, inspiring its own TikTok meme, and spent a record-breaking 37 weeks climbing the Radio Songs chart before reaching No.1 in June, over a year after its initial release. Eventually, the track earned the top spot on the year-end Hot 100 — the first time a woman had topped that year-end tally solo since Adele in 2011.
“‘Levitating’ doing its thing on the Billboard chart is absolutely surreal,” Lipa told Billboard earlier this month. “That song has been my baby for so long, and to have it out in the world, and for people’s response to be the way that it is, it’s just absolutely mind-blowing to me. I’m really, really, really grateful for it all.” “Levitating” quietly grew into Lipa’s biggest track, with its funky groove and addictive, clap-filled chorus echoing through the aisles of every grocery store and through the speakers at every house party in Summer 2021.
On top of Dua Lipa’s solo singles, she was also featured on Pop Smoke’s posthumous sophomore album, Faith, on the track “Demeanor” – which was accompanied by a lavish, Marie Antoinette-esque music video. Lipa was also joined by Elton John for a soft piano rendition of “Love Again,” which turned into several unexpected but well-received collaborations between the two, including an orchestral take on “Bennie and the Jets” at John’s pre-Oscars benefit.
The duo’s most successful teaming, however, came with John’s latest album The Lockdown Sessions, where Lipa provided vocals for “Cold Heart,” a hybrid cover-mashup of several classic Elton John hits. The collaboration secured Elton John’s first Hot 100 hit in over 20 years (peaking at No. 11 in December), proving that Lipa’s star power could transcend generational barriers.
As her final encore for Future Nostalgia, Lipa gave the electro pop track “Love Again” new life over the summer by releasing it as a single nearly 15 months after its initial drop, practically unheard of at a time in pop music when album cycles often come and go in as little as a few weeks. The track was paired with a surreal western-style music video, featuring imagery of cowboys, crying clowns, and giant eggs – another creative leap from Lipa this year. In addition to her musical efforts, Lipa also founded Service95, a weekly newsletter compiled of specially curated lists, features, music recommendations, and more to debut early next year — potentially branding her as the next great lifestyle guru, with a perfectly tailored soundtrack to match.
If anything, continuing to expand her Future Nostalgia world proves Lipa’s dedication to giving her fans new content during a year when touring and concerts were still unable to go as planned – as the Future Nostalgia tour was postponed for a second time, after being planned for Spring of 2020. Lipa didn’t let that stop her from creating new, visually stunning performances, including a massive medley at this year’s Brit Awards, and several alternative versions of her music videos.
In a streaming era where album cycles are becoming shorter and more compact, Lipa has proved that her star power is only increasing as her Future Nostalgia era enters yet another phase, over two years after she released its lead single. The Future Nostalgia Tour is slated to begin in February 2022, where the album will – hopefully — finally be heard live by fans around the world. And after that, Lipa’s masterful workings of her latest album cycle should make her next album one of the most anticipated pop eras in recent memory.