Dua Lipa's Unplanned, Uncertain, Unprecedented Album Launch

Dua Lipa looked away from the camera and covered her face with a manicured hand. “I really didn’t want to do this,” she half-whispered. She failed to muffle a major sniffle.

Dua Lipa's Unplanned, Uncertain, Unprecedented Album Launch

It was shortly after 10 a.m. Monday of the last full week in March, and the usually composed 24-year-old English pop star was not on her way to New York to rehearse for her scheduled appearance on “Saturday Night Live” that coming weekend. She was not at a photo shoot, in a radio studio or any of the other places an artist preparing to release her much-anticipated second album might be.

She was in coronavirus self-quarantine in London, addressing her fans live on Instagram for only the second time. “I’ve been a little bit conflicted about putting music out and you know, whether it’s the right thing to do during this time because lots of people are suffering,” she had explained as she teared up. The album was due in 11 days.

Lipa quickly composed herself and spoke about how she had avoided focusing on the pressures that come with making a buzzed-about second album — like the specter of the sophomore slump, a fate that could extinguish a budding career — by assembling a dancey, upbeat LP that made her feel good. She hoped that the album, “Future Nostalgia,” would bring her fans a bit of joy at a very uncertain time. Oh, and it would now be out in four days.

Pop album launches are like Fourth of July fireworks shows: highly choreographed affairs with dozens of carefully timed parts threatening to detonate at any moment. For a powerhouse young artist like Lipa, a flawlessly executed second album could determine whether she’d secure her path to career stardom, like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, or join the ranks of hopefuls whose fame slipped away. After teeing up “Future Nostalgia” with years of preparation — built on the success of her 2017 platinum debut album, six platinum singles and hundreds of performances around the globe — Lipa and her team suddenly realized a few cannons hadn’t simply misfired; their entire barge was in danger of sinking.

The giant Glastonbury festival was out. The 85-date arena tour had to be rescheduled. They debated pushing the record back to the summer; then two days before Lipa’s raw live stream, “Future Nostalgia” leaked, which she took as a sign to act immediately — she’s been a planner all her life, and wanted to feel like she had wrestled something back under her control. It became clear that Lipa and her core crew would be releasing one of the year’s biggest pop records from their couches. (A day later, Lady Gaga announced that she was delaying her new album, “Chromatica.” Sam Smith soon did the same.)

“When I was coming to the end of my first record and I was going into interviews, I would tell people that I want my next record to be like an organized mess,” Lipa said a few hours later on a FaceTime call, her bleached hair secured by two barrettes like a ’90s alt-rocker. “And then everything just got spun around and I was like, what happened to my organized mess?”

Her tears had dried, but were hovering in an emotional on-deck circle. “I’d be lying if I wasn’t welling up like 10 times a day just from what is happening,” she said. It was easy for her thoughts to slip into a “downward spiral” of virus-related fears: whether grandparents would be safe, and everyone would have enough food.

Nobody expected to be having this conversation. Lipa certainly didn’t anticipate a pandemic becoming part of the “Future Nostalgia” narrative. But here we were. Fans were turning snippets from her singles into quarantine memes: the “I should’ve stayed at home” chorus from “Break My Heart”; the “Don’t show up/Don’t come out” refrain from “Don’t Start Now.”

The memes, she loved. Appearing on a live stream, not so much. The only other time Lipa had gone live on social media was in December 2018, when she celebrated her two Grammy nominations by chugging from a bottle of Champagne. “It came out of my nose and it was all kinds of disgusting,” she said. “Obviously now during this time I’m probably going to do more live videos. So that’s another thing out of my comfort zone that I might get really good at.” She let out a resigned laugh.

Before the coronavirus swallowed daily life for much of the world, the “Future Nostalgia” rollout was humming along. Lipa had plenty of momentum from her self-titled 2017 debut, a mashup of tempos and pop-R&B vibes that included the blockbuster “New Rules,” a song enumerating how to avoid backsliding with an ex, which seemed to play on the radio every time a woman considered the idea. (Its YouTube video alone has 2 billion views.)

Lipa won those two Grammys, including one for best new artist, performed at the show alongside St. Vincent, and made sure to acknowledge the other female nominees in a pointedly feminist acceptance speech. Wendy Williams mispronounced her name on her TV show, giving Lipa an internet nickname: Dula Peep. Her Instagram following swelled to more than 40 million.

The new album’s first single, “Don’t Start Now,” dropped like a disco ball in fall 2019, serving up ’70s roller-rink-jam touchstones: a rubber-band bass line reminiscent of Chic and choppy synth strings, topped by Lipa’s nimble, husky vocals. “Physical” followed, adding a dash of Olivia Newton-John aerobics-pop to the mix, then “Break My Heart,” more finger-wagging glitter funk with a chorus that interpolates the rhythm guitar from INXS’ “Need You Tonight.”

Lipa wanted the album to have a cohesive dance-pop aesthetic, and it showed. That meant she had to shut out other people’s opinions, “Because I knew I would be stuck in a studio trying to make another ‘New Rules,’” she said. “That’s a vicious cycle where I don’t grow and nobody else benefits from that because it’s just the same song again and again, and I just don’t want to.”

Katy Perry well understands the drive to carve out fresh creative paths in an industry that prefers the security of sameness. “We have kind of an unspoken sisterly bond,” she said by phone of Lipa, whom she sees as part of a generation of young musicians — including Billie Eilish, Rosalía and Lizzo — on the career-artist track. “You have to be able to evolve under the spotlight, not let the pressure get to you, not let the comments get to you,” Perry said. “These songs are going to have legs after this quarantine.”

Lipa had a strategy to make sure she didn’t lose sight of her goal. She returned to trusted collaborators — Clarence Coffee Jr., Sarah Hudson, Koz — hoping to capture the lighthearted spirit of making the new album in its tracks. The title came to her first, a cue to touch on the music she heard in the house growing up: Prince, Blondie, Jamiroquai, the electro duo Moloko, and of course, Madonna. (Stuart Price, who oversaw Madonna’s 2005 disco opus “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” contributed production on three “Future Nostalgia” tracks. Lipa’s LP likewise has no ballads.)

“Going in with an artist that has a vision and is really adamant about what they hear and what they want, it’s like, you can’t ask for anything better than that,” said Hudson, a Los Angeles songwriter who worked on “Physical” and “Levitating,” the groovy track that helped Lipa unlock her blueprint for the LP. The “Levitating” session involved a doughnut binge that had the crew bouncing off the walls; the lyrics include the term of endearment “my sugarboo.”

While Lipa has been a queen of the kiss-off — she prefers music for “dance-crying,” songs that traverse darker emotional terrain — “Future Nostalgia” is stocked with tracks about the thrill of a happy relationship. She’s been dating model Anwar Hadid since summer 2019 and the new work puts her in the company of other young women who talk frankly about sexuality in their music. “It’s really the way I express myself, and the way that I would talk with my friends and the way that I am,” she said.

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Hudson stressed that Lipa was an integral part of the songwriting process, a fact that has sometimes been obscured by the public’s focus on the onetime model’s looks and personal life. Another underheralded talent is Lipa’s ability to nail complex syncopations and wordy passages on and around the beat, perhaps owing to her early hip-hop fandom growing up in London, then Kosovo. (Her first concert was Method Man and Redman. Her second was 50 Cent.)

“She’s so genuine and she’s so just who she is and relatable, but at the same time she’s a superstar,” Hudson said. “She just walks in the room and you’re like, Oh my God.”

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There’s a difference between being comfortable onstage or in front of a fashion photographer’s lens and figuring out how to frame yourself best on a laptop’s dinky camera. In the four days between announcing her album’s new release date and its arrival, Lipa became her own glam squad, stylist, cinematographer, IT department and broadcast center.

“We knew promo was going to be very hard if not impossible,” her manager, Ben Mawson, said by phone from London. Billboard advertisements, usually a major element of marketing campaigns, are “kind of pointless right now because no one’s going outside.” Digital initiatives, like a track-by-track breakdown on YouTube, took on fresh importance.

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Dua Lipa loves a plan. When she was a child, her father would find to-do notes she’d written for herself lying around the house: wake up, have breakfast, finish homework. She’s the organizer in her friend group — the one making the dinner reservations and corralling everyone to the comedy club.

So she quickly adapted to her new normal: a home office. “I’ve never used my laptop more than I have right now,” she said. “I’ve been downloading multiple apps to do lots of different phone calls and meet-ups.” It was a major change of pace; Lipa is the type who eschews airplane Wi-Fi so she can read a book.

And then there was the question of the sizable beauty industrial complex that goes into making a pop star look like a pop star. “Normally when I’d go and do promo of course, I’d have my hair and my makeup done, whereas now I have one trusty brown lipstick,” Lipa said. “I put face cream, and that is it for the day.” (She did her own hair and makeup for this article’s socially distanced photo shoot.)

The upsides were already evident: “It just shows a very unfiltered version of yourself,” she said. Plus, “My time in bed is much longer.”

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There was yet another curveball: Lipa wasn’t even in her own home. She had returned from a trip overseas to a flooded apartment, and quickly secured a small Airbnb for the quarantine. She and Hadid got comfortable fast, making banana jerky and watching crime dramas. She conducted radio interviews, filmed a Zoom-style performance of “Don’t Start Now” for James Corden — with 11 band mates and backup dancers doing their parts in their homes — and appeared on Miley Cyrus’ “Bright Minded” livestream interview series, all from different perches in the rental.

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When we spoke again later that week, on Friday, a handwritten note tucked into a vase over her shoulder was visible on camera: “No smoking until 5 pm 4 your own health!”

“This is my boyfriend’s note to himself,” she said, laughing, once it was pointed out. “Because I have a bit more willpower.”

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Nobody who comes into contact with Dua Lipa has ever questioned her drive. She credits her work ethic to her parents, Albanian immigrants who each held two jobs while going to university when she was growing up. “My parents sacrificed a lot to try and make me feel like I wasn’t missing out on anything,” she said. Her name set her apart at school, but she didn’t feel like an outsider. When she was 11, the family returned to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and though their quality of life improved, Lipa realized she “didn’t have the opportunities that I did in London.”

She begged to go back; when she was 15, her parents eventually relented, and let her move in with a family friend’s daughter. (How did she convince them? “My dad just says I’m very hard to say no to.” In 2018 she helped put on a music festival in Kosovo with her father, who plays in a rock band.) Lipa took a gap year after finishing school and resolved to find a manager. She had no idea how to do that.

She worked at a restaurant and partied — “It was a fun time for sure,” she said — but stayed focused. She posted cover songs on SoundCloud and YouTube, dropped off demo CDs at radio stations and picked up gigs doing vocals for advertisements. One such assignment, for an “X Factor” commercial, connected her with a producer who proposed a publishing deal.

Lipa was 17 and flummoxed, and reached out to a producer named Felix Joseph she’d befriended online. “I was like, I know we’ve never met and we only know each other from Twitter, but I’ve just been offered a publishing deal and I have no idea what the [expletive] it means.” It was a fortunate connection: Joseph redirected her to his attorney, who nixed the deal but was impressed enough to set up a meeting with Mawson.

“She came into our office and the first thing that struck me was just how incredibly charismatic she was,” said Mawson, who also manages Lana Del Rey. “She had bags of ambition, and she played us little bits of demos and the voice was just amazing.” He asked her what kind of career she wanted; when Lipa referenced Madonna, he was sold.

Lipa said she didn’t quit her day job at La Bodega Negra until she’d signed her record deal with Warner Bros. She had celebratory cocktails at the restaurant with her team first.

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She and Mawson have been dreaming — or planning, rather — big since Day 1, with an eye on a global prize. “On the first album, she did 245 live shows,” Mawson said. “For a pop act, that’s not normal.” (Lipa has the number tattooed on her arm.) The total included concerts far from England and the United States; Mexico City and São Paulo are currently her two biggest cities on Spotify. “She’s put in the time and she cares about countries which are difficult to make a mark in,” Mawson said. He cited China, which “was challenging.” She visited three times promoting “Dua Lipa.”

The strategy would end up buoying Lipa during the first week of the “Future Nostalgia” release. She lost No. 1 on the British charts to 5 Seconds of Summer and debuted in the United States at No. 4, behind the Weeknd, 5 Seconds of Summer and Lil Uzi Vert. But on Spotify, she was the most listened to female artist and third most-streamed artist in the world.

“I think that you should feel totally confident with your choice of putting out the record because you can bring, like, a lot of light,” Miley Cyrus had told Lipa during their live interview. “I need a [expletive] dance party.”

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If Lipa had spent her release week worrying about unleashing a feel-good album in the midst of a crisis, when the LP arrived on March 27 accompanied by glowing reviews and Instagram comments filled with hearts and fire emojis, the anxiety had faded.

“Today is a very good day,” she said, beaming in her Airbnb. “I’m so overwhelmed with the response and how lovely everyone’s been.” As she’d hoped, fans said the album’s bouncy vibe had provided them with a much-needed escape. She was sporting the Christopher Kane “Techno Sexual” sweatshirt she’d worn on a livestream a few days prior. (Quarantined stars: They really are just like us.)

Before she’d known how her decision would play out, she had shared a rare moment of self-doubt. “A week before I was about to release ‘Don’t Start Now’ I started panicking,” she said, “because it was the first time I was like, [expletive], I haven’t asked or checked or seen if anybody even wants something like this.”

Mawson recounted a similar tale of the song’s arrival. He knew Lipa had made something that was “uniquely her,” but fretted to his radio promotion executive that the almost Eurodisco track didn’t sound like the songs in heavy rotation on American radio. “He was like, yeah, it isn’t what’s getting played, but I believe this is the kind of song that could change the radio,” Mawson said. “And look at it now, it’s beating ‘New Rules.’”

It was a lesson that would prove useful over the course of Lipa’s highly unusual week: Some things just can’t be planned.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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