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Don't worry, Dua Lipa fans: 'Radical Optimism' isn't a flop — it's primed for slow-burn success

Callie Ahlgrim   

Don't worry, Dua Lipa fans: 'Radical Optimism' isn't a flop — it's primed for slow-burn success
  • Dua Lipa released her third studio album, "Radical Optimism," on Friday.
  • Its structure and release strategy recall "Future Nostalgia" in a way that bodes well for its longevity.

If you're anything like me — or plenty of other pop lovers — your first instinct will be to measure Dua Lipa's fizzy new album "Radical Optimism" against her previous release, "Future Nostalgia."

Fans and critics alike have tended to frame this comparison unfavorably for Lipa, who's bristled at the suggestion that she's retreading familiar ground. Her defensive reaction makes sense — it must be daunting to follow a Grammy-winning classic.

But I'm here to offer a contrary perspective, and perhaps some comfort for Lipa's fellow optimists.

With its Euro-pop vibe, 11-track structure, and dance-forward conceit, "Radical Optimism" does recall its predecessor, but that's hardly a bad thing. In fact, it bodes very well for the album's staying power.

"Future Nostalgia" has wormed itself so deeply into our DJ sets and playlists that people forget the album wasn't an overnight sensation.

Back in 2019, Lipa unveiled the album's lead single, "Don't Start Now." The song was paired with a hypnotic music video and Lipa's newly impressive stage presence, overhauled in response to the infamous comment, "Go girl, give us nothing." When Lipa reappeared for her sophomore era, she was determined to give us everything.

But still, true to its title, "Don't Start Now" didn't latch on immediately. It debuted at No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 — a triumph for any average Joe, but a slight letdown for a superstar who'd scored a viral hit the previous year. "Don't Start Now" took a five-month voyage to reach No. 2 shortly before "Future Nostalgia" was released in March 2020.

Other songs that preceded the album performed with similar modesty. Lipa's second single, "Physical," debuted at No. 60 and spent only two weeks on the chart. Her third, "Break My Heart," earned a stronger arrival at No. 21, but failed to reach the top 10.

Compare that to the trio of "Radical Optimism" singles: "Houdini," "Training Season," and "Illusion," all of which have the makings of a smash. They're vibrant, assertive, and determinedly catchy; on more than one occasion, I've found myself singing their hooks in the shower, without even realizing I'd learned the words.

So far, these songs have peaked at No. 11, No. 27, and No. 43, respectively. Vultures online have described this turnout as Lipa's "flop era." But their assessment is both harsh and premature. Judging by the existing evidence, Lipa could well be gearing up for her second round of pop domination.

Although "Future Nostalgia" was met with glowing reviews, it sold only 66,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. It would be several months before Lipa's disco-lit fantasy imbued our reality.

But Lipa came prepared to convince us. After the album's March 27, 2020 release, her pandemic-era campaign included an eclectic remix album and a million-dollar virtual concert. Then came "Levitating," identified as an early critical favorite, which was released as the album's fifth single. It was eventually crowned the top-performing Billboard hit of the year — on December 2, 2021, nearly two years after "Future Nostalgia" was released while the world was stuck inside and not on the dancefloor.

All this is to say: I wouldn't bet against Lipa. "Radical Optimism" is primed for the same kind of slow-burn success, especially given its familiar shimmer of pop genius.

The album kicks off with "End of an Era," a trippy banger that sets the scene for Lipa's journey through singledom.

In track one, she's in the throes of a delirious honeymoon phase. But we get the feeling it won't last long. At the end of the bridge, Lipa's butterflies are interrupted by a self-aware eye roll: "Oh, here she goes again."

This push-and-pull energy is central to the album. If "Future Nostalgia" sounds like falling in love at the club, "Radical Optimism" sounds like Lipa flitting around untethered, her confidence forged by past disappointments.

Lipa shines in these songs. She's the girl at the party with the best stories, full of ultimatums and escapades. In a thrilling three-track run, she honors the urge to break up in "These Walls," flirts with someone new in "Whatcha Doing," then dips without warning in "French Exit." She's always challenging her suitors to keep up: "Don't you know I could do this dance all night?" she teases in "Illusion," a succinct thesis for the entire album. Lipa proves that she's hard to earn and even harder to keep. Her elusive reputation is recast as wise discernment.

"Radical Optimism" mirrors the weird rush of dating, enhanced greatly by Lipa's key producers: Kevin Parker, aka Tame Impala, and Danny L Harle, who recently worked on Caroline Polachek's "Desire, I Want to Turn Into You."

Parker and Harle bring eccentric textures to Lipa's soundscape: Flamenco-style guitars and funky basslines course through the opening track; album highlight "Maria" is propelled by brisk acoustics; "Happy For You" closes the album with bombastic drums and bird chirps.

Even Lipa's three primers sound better as parts of a cohesive sum. "Houdini" reigns as the best song on the tracklist, while "Training Season," the only single that didn't impress me at first blush, has already managed to climb out of "skip" territory.

With streaming platforms and TikTok trends, we're used to seeing songs come and go like flashes in a pan. Our collective attention span is shorter than ever.

But Lipa's isn't. She creates songs that stick around — earworms that tunnel, subtly and steadily, until they've set up camp in the deepest ridge of your brain. "Radical Optimism" is full of those suckers. So if you don't get it yet, just wait.

Final Grade: 8.6/10

Worth listening to: "End of an Era," "Houdini," "These Walls," "Whatcha Doing," "French Exit," "Illusion," "Falling Forever," "Maria" "Happy For You"

Background music: "Training Season"

Press skip: "Anything For Love"

*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for "Worth listening to," .5 for "Background music," 0 for "Press skip").

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