I have always found Charli XCX to be an absolutely fascinating figure in modern pop music. Her career started relatively normal, breaking through with singles like “Boom Clap” and her feature on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” It seemed like Charli was a clear example of a rising pop star and then she took a pivot that many found polarizing. While very much sticking with pop, it was not your usual brand of pop, instead working with producers like Sophie and others at PC Music who are known for their wild, glitchy and challenging production. While some were turned off by EPs like Vroom Vroom and the mixtapes to follow, many became deeply invested in her career, giving her the kind of cult followings that artists like Carly Rae Jepsen have been able to achieve.
This is where Charli becomes interesting because it is her first proper studio album since this pivot and she is still very much being pushed by Atlantic. The questions for me became how would Charli be able to appeal to her new fans while also being able to recapture the mainstream glory that put her on the map. I think for a pop album pushed by a major label, this is about as good as a compromise can get. Charli undoubtedly is unconventional when compared to what Charli XCX’s contemporaries are releasing but it is also far more interesting than just about any other pop music being released today.
The album starts off with the infectious “Next Level Charli” that plays like an extended intro that lets you know exactly what to expect with this album. The production is grand, bumping between Charli’s verses, really adding energy to her delivery.
Next we get the first of several collaborations on this album. “Gone,” a duet with Christine and the Queens, is a clear highlight, as the two artist’s vocals do not only match the production but play off each other excellently. The two have a lot of chemistry, making this track the perfect mix of emotions and fun. The same can be said for “Cross You Out” with Sky Ferreira, which feels darker than the track it succeeds. The beat has more abrasive as it booms in the background of the two artists singing about the trauma caused by the toxic people they are “crossing out” in their lives.
While these collaborations are nice at what they achieve, there are a couple others that go much deeper into being pop songs and I think are certainly fun. “1999” with Troye Sivan is a clear example of a simple song about nostalgia. This is certainly the kind of song that Charli would have done on her older albums and while she certainly feels like she has moved on from this sound, it is undeniably a fun track. I do not think Troye Sivan matches the intensity of the song, sadly, as he sounds out of place with this pretty commanding beat. I think “Blame It On Your Love” is the better of the “mainstream pop” that is on here. Charli XCX fans will recognize this song as a polished version of “Track 10” off of Pop 2, and while I am not sure which is better I do think they both fulfill their purposes well. Also, the Lizzo feature is unfortunately too short but her presence is enough to make an impact.
Luckily for Charli’s new fans, there are at least a couple collaborative tracks that will satisfy you in the same way her past mixtapes have. “Click” is a bizarre, glitchy electronic track that ventures into bizarre territory. Charli raps over the first verse over some futuristic production before Kim Petras’ verse comes on with intense swagger and a vocal that blends with the beat. This is all before Tommy Cash’s wild verse comes in and the song explodes with distortion. Another bizarre moment comes on “Shake It,” a posse cut with Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar. Lyrically, the song is a simple ass shaking anthem but the production and performances makes it so much more. Charli’s contributions are actually pretty minimal, really just introducing the track before falling into the background as her features each shine with their verses. And the production is what makes PC Music so great, feeling large and unpredictable.
The ballads that are scattered throughout this record help make the moments where Charli is on her own really work. These are arguably the heart of this record, really giving a vulnerable look at Charli. The relationship songs like “Official” and especially “White Mercedes” are both tender looks into Charli’s softer side. “Official” is definitely more focused on Charli’s actual relationship with her partner and recounting all the things that make what they have special. It is a cute song that certainly hits strong. Not as strong as “White Mercedes” which is what I would imagine Julia Michaels would sound like if she was interesting. It is the perfect pop ballad with a strong build and soaring chorus. The song focuses more on Charli’s feelings in this relationship and how she feels undeserving or unworthy of her partner. It pairs beauty and sadness so well and is one of the best moments here.
Needless to say, I have been enjoying this album thoroughly but there are a few areas I wish could have been ironed out. Not every song on here works perfectly for me. While the final two tracks “February 2017” and “2099” are certainly well produced, they both are a little less memorable to me. Neither get weird enough for me to find overly interesting and the lyrical content did not strike as strong as some of the songs before it. I also found “Warm” with Haim to be underwhelming and the only moment I felt a noticeable lull in the track list.
But even with these weaker spots, this album has an overwhelming amount of energy and is one of the best pop albums I have heard this year. Charli XCX is the kind of pop star that I will continue to look out for, even if her sound is a bit too out there for many audiences. I recommend fans of Charli continue to support her and artists like her because it would be pretty incredible to hear music like this coming out of major label projects for years to come.
Best Tracks: Next Level Charli, Gone (feat. Christine and the Queens), Cross You Out (feat. Sky Ferreira), Click (feat. Kim Petras & Tommy Cash), White Mercedes, Silver Cross, Official Shake It (feat. Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy & Pabllo Vittar)
Worst Track: Warm (feat. Haim)
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