Dua Lipa Dulls Her Own Vibes on the Riskless Radical Optimism

The English-Albanian pop superstar’s follow-up to Future Nostalgia lacks color, edge and instinct, as its 11 songs get lost beneath Kevin Parker and Danny L Harle’s psychedelic dependencies.

Music Reviews Dua Lipa
Dua Lipa Dulls Her Own Vibes on the Riskless Radical Optimism

Follow-ups are tricky, especially when your last album was hailed as “the decade’s first great pop album” and caught onto the disco revival bug before it grew stale. 2020’s Future Nostalgia turned Dua Lipa into a pop megastar and her third album was bound to face scrutiny regardless of the final presentation. Radical Optimism delivers on typical Lipa fare: hopeful for new love and brushing off her lousy exes with ease, now with the addition of sun-kissed skin. But its inability to offer any lasting impact often leaves it dead in the water.

Radical Optimism offered an alluring prospect upon first murmurs: Kevin Parker and Danny L Harle were added to her roster to produce and write (Lipa had her eyes on the former as early as her debut album, according to TIME), and her third album promised songs inspired by trip-hop legends Massive Attack, Britpop and psychedelia. She most often lands closest to the latter—likely due to Parker’s involvement—and mimics the breeze of a weekend getaway throughout its runtime. But when advertised as an album centered around “going through chaos gracefully and feeling like you can weather any storm,” you’d expect something a little grittier. Beyond vibes, there’s not much that makes Radical Optimism as exhilarating or striking as any of her past work.

Despite her instinct to write off anyone who tries to court her, when Lipa gets knocked off her feet, she loses all control. That’s how “Whatcha Doing,” a funky track with flourishes akin to Daft Punk’s “Veridis Quo,” is born. Album closer “Happy For You” finds the pop star expressing gratitude to her former lover’s future when she would have previously sent them packing. With a new-age intro featuring avian chirps and gentle synths, the song transitions into murky drums, with Lipa declaring sincere gratitude for her ex-lover’s future. “I must’ve loved you more than I ever knew,” she sings, punctuated by synthy flourishes. “’Cause I’m happy for you.”

But parts of the record are flat-out perplexing, like “Illusion,” which sounds like a less successful and skeletal version of 2020’s “Hallucinate.” Building up to a piano-driven chorus, Lipa feigns romantic naivete so she can keep her lovers in line. “Illusion” could have been an otherwise solid single, but it suffers from flat and dull drums in the chorus making the whole song feel flimsy. And then there’s “Anything For Love,” which opens with a gathering at the studio; glasses clinking, giggles and mentions of salted licorice. What appears to be a somber piano ballad showcasing Lipa’s vocals at their strongest flips into a bouncy (and questionable) strut punctuated by faint guitar. Before this can all marinate it’s over before it has fully leaned into this cheesiness.

Radical Optimism appears more as a series of vignettes than a fully fleshed-out record. There’s never quite a moment across the album that is as infectious as the cowbell-accented breakdown of “Pretty Please” or the three-minute adrenaline rush of “Physical.” When you know what Dua Lipa is capable of achieving, it only further emphasizes Radical Optimism’s lack of depth and risk.

Jaeden Pinder is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY by way of South Florida. She has written for Pitchfork and Stereogum.

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