The pop star's ascent from obscurity to topping the charts is a vindication for record-label tactics
The rise of British-Kosovan pop star Dua Lipa
When Dua Lipa hit No 1 in the British singles charts for the first time last week, it was four days before her 22nd birthday and three days before the two-year anniversary of her first online release.
The song in question, New Rules, is more than worthy of the position: it sounds as good heard in passing, on a shop radio or emanating from a passing car, as it does on a personal obsessive loop on your own headphones. Its list of post-break-up commandments casts Lipa as confident enough to be clever about the situation (“Two: Don’t let him in, you’re only gonna have to kick him out again”) while also vulnerable enough to have to be painstaking. And its video, which recasts the lyrics as a conversation between women rather than voices in Lipa’s head, is also brilliant for its sense of emotional progress over the song – by the end, Lipa is the one doling out the advice to a newly heartbroken friend.
For the British-Kosovan singer, whose self-titled debut album also made the Top 10 in the United Kingdom on its release in June, it could also mean the end of the awkward, drawn-out chrysalis phase now par for the course for young major-label pop stars. The music-industry term for artists yet to be fully unleashed on the world is “in development” – and it’s often something of an arduous process. It involves taking raw talent and/or charisma, then triangulating it with current trends and future trend-spotting, pushed and pulled all the while by the commercial desires and artistic whims of label executives, A&Rs, managers, producers and the artist themselves. The end result, depending on how romantic you want to be, is a product, a brand or a pop star; a collection of statements – sonic, visual, maybe even political – that strike a chord with the public, or at least a segment of it.
Getting this right can take years, and involve false start after false start. In 2014, an early video by rapper Iggy Azalea emerged online; entitled Nothing Like Me, it purported to be a demo recorded for a label she never ended up signing to, and its Britney Spears-esque dance-pop was indeed nothing like the imitation southern hip-hop with which she would eventually find fame. And if Lana Del Rey’s emergence from the internet ether with Video Games in 2012 was one of the most strikingly orchestrated debuts of this decade, the painstaking work that had gone into getting her sound and look just right was revealed when her “real” first album also found its way online. Recorded under her birth name, Lizzy Grant, and pulled after just three months, almost everything about it – the misspelled title of Lana Del Ray, the amateurish cover font, the clunky production – was full of potential, but in sore need of refinement.
These days, the refinement is more likely to take place in full view of the public from the start: rarely will a pop star burst into the public consciousness as a fully-formed, coherent entity. Rather, they will start slow, gaining an online presence and gradually accruing fans without necessarily turning the promotional machine on full blast. From a positive angle, this enables early converts to follow the artist’s journey – both in terms of magnitude, as they (ideally) become a bigger and bigger deal; and aesthetically, with the tweaks to their image and sound mirroring the life phases many pop fans naturally go through in their teens and 20s. A more cynical way of looking at it is that major labels, still enduring smaller budgets and profits – particularly when it comes to artists not already established as megastars – prefer to throw one sound after another at the public just to see what sticks rather than spend squillions behind the scenes only to find they haven’t gauged the reception correctly.
There’s also the sense, now, that pop audiences expect authenticity – or at least, a certain version of it. If the era of big-budget reality TV was when the curtain was first drawn back on the process of pop manufacturing, the media landscape now offers pop fans the chance to bypass light entertainment shows entirely to go straight to the source, with current pop stars such as Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara rising to prominence via Vine and YouTube before being signed to major labels.
Lipa, too, posted low-budget pop covers online in 2015 – but it wasn’t such an organic emergence for the former model and alumna of the Sylvia Young Theatre School, who was already working with Del Rey’s management team and signed to Warner Bros. But even if Warner Bros was simply incorporating a “relatable” evolution into her career arc, Lipa’s bigger endgame was evident almost immediately: within months, she had been longlisted for the BBC Sound of … 2016, the annual self-congratulatory pop ritual in which industry insiders predict success for acts who already have major label backing and budgets behind them.
Indeed, for a while, Lipa had more presence as an industry product than an artist with an identifiable aesthetic, as evidenced by the comparisons early reviewers grasped at. The Guardian called her a “younger, poppier Lana”, presumably inspired by the professional links rather than her full-throated voice, while the Independent pinned her as a jazz and cabaret singer. The BBC, meanwhile, matched Lipa’s amorphous non-sound with the meaningless description “off-kilter it-girl sound”. It wasn’t that she was uncategorisable or elusive, simply that each single found her trying on a different set of clothes, accessorising with chart trends so varied as to be meaningless. The singer herself seemed confused: last year, when she released her fourth single, Hotter Than Hell, she described the upbeat, festival-friendly anthem as “dark pop”, presumably because of its titular reference.
Thus, that first single, New Love, feinted blandly at Jessie Ware-style soul; even now, it is by far the weakest cut on Lipa’s album. A second go, Be the One, made the Top 10 in the UK and had surprising chart longevity. Its blend of 1980s synth-pop and gospel touches were rather better suited to Lipa’s booming alto – and even if the song wasn’t bursting with individual character, details such as the arrangement giving way to a skipping heartbeat kick drum on its bridge were the kind of addictive moments that are key to great pop.
The twist? The singles that seemed like insubstantial Spotify pop by themselves – fine, but nothing special – come together on Lipa’s album, two arduous years in the making, to make her entire aesthetic fall into place. It’s a bold work – in length (17 tracks in total in its deluxe-edition form); in concept (a break-up album patterned around the arc of a relationship that starts with a song called Genesis and the line: “In the beginning, God created heaven and Earth”); and even in sound. Lipa is fond of unusual combinations of influences, but purées them so seamlessly – while leaning heavily on rather more-common sounds such as tropical house – that she makes power-ballad drum fills paired with reggae steel pans sound like radio fodder. When heard in the wild, this becomes a positive.
Thus, Blow Your Mind (Mwah) brings out brash buzz-tooth synths while harking back to early Kesha-style electropop; when Lost in Your Light pairs Lipa with R&B singer Miguel, she manages to match his yearning romantic sweep almost exactly. Usually, when albums that have been subject to so much delay eventually come out, the reasons are obvious: they are often overthought and overly trend-driven. That isn’t exactly inaccurate with Dua Lipa, given the amount of bases she tries to hit and the stylistic mélanges she attempts. But the sheer amount of flashy hooks she crams in, the lack of filler and the way in which she manages to tie the whole package together are, against the odds, an argument in favour of that dispiriting developmental process.