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Track review: Dua Lipa offers more of the same sweat-soaked pop on ‘Houdini’

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

There may not be an active pop star as consistent as Dua Lipa, who’s spent the past four years churning out some of the industry’s slickest, most infectious hits.

In 2019, the now 28-year-old British-Albanian singer fervently embraced a near-total sonic overhaul, trading the uninspired, docile radio favorites of her 2017 eponymous debut album (give or take a few lasting gems, namely the inescapable “New Rules”) for disco-inspired dance-pop that fired on all cylinders. 

The break-up anthem “Don’t Start Now” and a slew of ironclad singles (“Physical,” “Break My Heart”) introduced the world to Lipa’s 2020 sophomore effort “Future Nostalgia” and, in turn, what seemed like a completely new artist. 

The album, which hit streaming a mere two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, was a master class in reinvention and blended sounds of new and old into a seamless, glitzy package. “Future Nostalgia” — sure to be considered a classic years from now, if not already — landed Lipa among the ranks of genre titans like Madonna and Kylie Minogue, winning the artist her third GRAMMY award and keeping listeners on their feet as stay-at-home orders multiplied.

In the time since, Lipa has released extended editions of “Future Nostalgia,” a star-studded remix album (which included the likes of Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliot and the aforementioned Madonna) and additional collaborations with Sir Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus. This summer, Lipa shared the spirited, Mark Ronson-produced “Barbie” soundtrack hit “Dance The Night,” which received two Recording Academy nods last week.

And now, Lipa is back with “Houdini,” the lead single from her upcoming third studio album.

Produced by Danny L. Harle and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, the track sees Lipa in the middle of the dance floor and on the market, cautioning interested parties that she can just as quickly slip out of reach as she can catch an admiring eye.  

“I come and I go, tell me all the ways you need me/Catch me or I go, Houdini,” the singer quips in the track’s chorus, comparing herself to the titular escape artist. Time is of the essence for Lipa, who refuses to entertain those who can’t keep up with her disappearing act (“It’s your moment, baby, don’t let it slip/Come in closer, are you reading my lips?”).

“(Houdini) represents the most light and freeing parts of my singledom,” Lipa said in a press release

“Houdini” was co-written by Lipa, Harle, Parker as well as Caroline Ailin and industry go-to Tobias Jesso Jr., all of whom “served as core collaborators” in making Lipa’s new album, according to the release.

The track “embodies that 4 a.m. feeling when the night is coming to a close and you’re a bit sweaty, but you just don’t want the party to end,” Lipa said in the release, and its sound is certainly an extension of that feeling. 

A deep bassline and pulsating synths on “Houdini” show a grittier variation of Lipa’s signature club arrangements, and while the track is certainly less polished than its “Future Nostalgia” predecessors, it’s by no means experimental. 

More akin to Parker’s psychedelia than it is Harle’s eccentricities, fans of the latter producer expecting the avant-pop work featured on Harle-accompanied projects from artists Caroline Polachek and Charli XCX on “Houdini” are certain to be left wanting a bigger gamble from Lipa, who perhaps could have benefited from a more drastic change of pace to usher in this new era. 

Nonetheless, “Houdini” may play it safe, but when Lipa’s “safe” is as groovy as it is, the result is far from a complete dud. The track’s last third is alone worth the listen, as its synths take center stage in the mix and Lipa howls before a distorted guitar (which would feel right at home on any of Daft Punk’s earlier work) closes the track.

It’s unclear where Lipa will take listeners next. The night always has to go somewhere, whether it’s an even sweatier dance hall or a guilt-ridden cab ride home, and Lipa would be wise to explore these options — in addition to new sounds —  in future offerings.

In the meantime, “Houdini” joins Lipa’s discography as yet another wry, trancey entry from the artist, who remains light on her feet and confident as all get-out. 



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