In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Dua Lipa- “Levitating”
PEAK: #2 on May 22, 2021
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open”
When looking at the success of “Levitating” in 2021, there’s a lot to admire about it. Here was a song that was not thought of at first as a big hit by everyone involved. Even after breaking onto the Billboard Hot 100, “Levitating” wasn’t performing well at first to the point where the label had begun to move on from promoting it. In an era where hit songs are expected to debut high on the charts, it looked as if “Levitating” had run its course as a relative flop. But slowly radio and avid social media users realized its hit potential more than Dua Lipa and her team could see beginning to play it a lot leading to it finally breaking through to a #2 peak and despite not hitting #1, becoming 2021’s biggest song.
Despite coming out late in the album cycle, “Levitating” was actually the first song that was written for Future Nostalgia. Producer Stephen Kozmeniuk had an idea for making a disco song and with Dua Lipa began sending ideas back and forth but it wasn’t until Kozmeniuk got himself a Roland VP-330 synthesizer and began playing the main choir-like riff that the song really started to come together. During a recording session, Lipa and Kozmeniuk co-wrote “Levitating” with fellow collaborators Clarence Coffee Jr. and Sarah Hudson. After a session filled with tarot card readings, getting high on sugar from eating lots of doughnuts, and thoughts of Austin Powers, Lipa and team were heavily inspired to write and record “Levitating.” They also gave it personal touches by including the word “sugarboo” which they had used as a joke term for a friend and Lipa adding a pseudo-rap bridge in the vein of Blondie’s 1981 similarly disco/rap hybrid #1 “Rapture” to showcase her British accent.
It’s hard to imagine a pop star as on top of the world as Dua Lipa in need of another hit. For the past two years, the British singer had catapulted herself from rising talent to a full-on dominant mainstream force thanks to her 2020 album Future Nostalgia, her collection of retro-minded dance floor bangers. The album’s big rollout hit was the bass thumping kiss-off “Don’t Start Now” which peaked at #2 in March 2020 behind that year’s top hit The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” (It’s a 9.) Future Nostalgia had also debuted at #4 on the album charts, already a big improvement from her 2018 self-titled debut album which had peaked at #27.
After “Don’t Start Now,” things started to falter a bit. Lipa followed her big lead single with “Break My Heart,” another funky disco jam where Lipa contemplates getting into a new relationship that very well might not work out in the end. The song’s chorus melody wound up interpolating the 1988 INXS #1 “Need You Tonight” so much so that the two writers in the band, Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence, were given songwriting credit on “Break My Heart.” The song is pretty good but it only peaked at #13 during the summer of 2020, not terrible but certainly not what you expect in following up a massive hit.
The great critic Chris Molanphy explains the rise and circumstances around “Levitating’s” success very well in his recent post on the song so I won’t delve into it too much. By fall 2020, Warner Music released “Levitating” to radio stations as the next single for Future Nostalgia. To keep the track fresh with listeners, it came complete with a rap remix featuring a verse from DaBaby. At that moment, DaBaby was coming off of his biggest pop chart success with the seven-week summer 2020 #1 “ROCKSTAR” featuring Roddy Ricch so he seemed like the perfect candidate to keep the song relevant.
“Levitating” broke onto the Hot 100 at #76 the week ending October 17th and from there slowly made its way up the chart whereby the last week of 2020, it had made it to #20. It was around this moment when “Levitating” began to get put into heavy rotation on radio, not the kind of treatment expected from a late album single that looked dead on the charts. The song also got big help from none other than TikTok with the social media company partnering to make the music video as well as promoting it as a challenge for its users to show off their levitating skills.
Two weeks after its #20 peak in January, “Levitating” rose to #9 and from there did not leave the Top 10 much. Even when Warner Music tried to move on from the song by releasing the new song “We’re Good” from the Future Nostalgia deluxe album The Moonlight Edition, it stalled at #31 the same week that “Levitating” hit its chart peak. People began realizing where the real hit was. “Levitating” probably got its biggest boost on the chart thanks to the Grammys held in March where Lipa performed “Levitating” with DaBaby before transitioning to “Don’t Start Now.” Ultimately, it couldn’t get to the top past Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak’s similarly retro ‘70s jam but it would outperform that and everything else in 2021.
As a song, “Levitating” doesn’t have the immediate catchiness of “Don’t Start Now” but it’s still fun. Like the rest of Future Nostalgia, “Levitating” works as a piece of retro-leaning yet modern-sounding disco only in a more breezy style than the previous hits. All of the elements- the synth choir, funky bass, guitar stabs, the handclaps, the steady four/four drum programming- all hit like a sugary rush true to the story behind the songwriting. It instantly gets you moving.
In the lyrics, “Levitating” presents a departure for Dua Lipa. Uptempo dance jams have always been Dua Lipa’s foray but her lyrics have often been about breakups in one way or another. Here, Lipa is still singing about a relationship but this time it’s about the fun thrills of one offering her lover an opportunity to run away together using outer space as the metaphor for this getaway. It’s the same kind of escape adventure theme that Janet Jackson did so well decades earlier on her 1990 #1 hit “Escapade.” And like Jackson on “Escapade,” Dua Lipa is having so much fun on “Levitating” that it makes you want to join her on this space adventure. Hell yeah, I’ll fly away with Dua Lipa tonight.
For his part, DaBaby’s verse is pretty clearly tacked on to ensure greater success but compared with other tacked on rap verses, I don’t mind it all that much. DaBaby’s lyrics don’t require much analysis though his opening lines make me laugh a little. But ultimately he’s here to add more liveliness to an already lively song. Like most rap verses on pop songs, DaBaby comes in, does his part, and then gets out.
The music video for the DaBaby version, like the song, is nothing but fun with director Warren Fu filming “Levitating” as one big party. The video starts with Dua Lipa laying on the hood of a car, a nice little update to the Tawny Kitaen appearances in the hair metal videos of the ‘80s, before getting onto an art-deco style elevator headed towards space with DaBaby getting on along with various TikTok dancers apparently. There’s also the TikTok logo as the elevator arrow which makes the corporate partnership very clear. After partying in the elevator, the video ends with everyone getting launched into space ending with everyone dancing on some sort of celestial belt. Much like the song, the video for “Levitating” makes you want to join in on the fun.
DaBaby’s presence on “Levitating,” the very thing that helped it move up the charts, is what also almost killed its momentum. While perforating at Miami’s Rolling Loud festival in July, right as “Levitating” was peaking on radio, DaBaby made heavily homophobic and misogynistic remarks that quickly drew backlash including Dua Lipa who denounced the comments as her fans began pushing for DaBaby to be taken off of “Levitating.” DaBaby found himself being removed from the lineups of other festivals and has not been doing a particularly good job in handling the backlash. An apology DaBaby posted to his Instagram was deleted a week later and has not been doing the work he promised to make amends for his comments.
Pretty quickly, radio stations and the public levitated toward the original solo version of “Levitating” with plays for the DaBaby remix dropping so much by the end of August that Billboard removed DaBaby from the song’s credit as Lipa’s solo version now accounted for a good majority of plays. Personally, the original version is fine in and of itself but since I got familiar with the song through the DaBaby version, something just feels off not hearing his rap which leads me levitating to that version. I’m not saying I feel good about it but that’s how my brain is on this.
Ultimately, the DaBaby debacle turned out not to affect the long-term success of “Levitating” on the charts. With the Dua Lipa solo version now counted for the Hot 100, the song remained high up in the Top 10 spending 41 weeks there giving it the second-longest stay in the Top 10 behind “Blinding Lights.” “Levitating” remained on the chart until November before dropping out after a 60-week run. Much like the three previous #2 songs that wound up being the biggest song of the year, “Levitating” beat out the #1 songs by dominating radio more and placing very highly on the Hot 100 during most of its chart run and the fact that its run occurred almost exactly within an entire Billboard charting year. That performance is what ultimately led “Levitating” to be named Billboard’s biggest song of 2021 in a year where many #1 hits fell off quickly after reaching the top.
Like the song, Future Nostalgia has also wound up being a big sleeper hit. After a year out and an initial peak of #4, it reached its new peak of #3 in March just after Dua Lipa’s Grammys performance. In terms of Billboard performance, Future Nostalgia has performed much better in 2021 than it did in 2020 with the magazine naming the album as its #9 best-selling album of the year. Perhaps the sleeper performance of Future Nostalgia and “Levitating” has to do with timing. The album and “Don’t Start Now” happened to come out and peak respectively right as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold depriving us of enjoying these dance floor jams on actual dance floors. But in 2021 as people have been itching to get back out, they realized that Dua Lipa had more bangers that they’d been sleeping on and wound up levitating all year long.
Ultimately, the success of “Levitating” shows that even today, you never know what will be a hit or not despite the best planning of the artist and the record label. Sometimes the listening public and radio stations are better at picking out an undeniable hit than even the industry people are.
BONUS BEATS: Before it became a hit, Dua Lipa released a thumping club remix version of “Levitating” featuring Madonna and Missy Elliott that came out on Lipa’s remix album Club Future Nostalgia titled “Levitating (The Blessed Madonna Remix).” Here’s the video for that version:
(Unlike Madonna, who was 12 #1 hits to her name, Missy Elliott and Dua Lipa know what it’s like to have their highest-charting songs peak at #2. Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)