Charli XCX has been dancing around the pop music amphitheater for years now. She’s had her own hits with songs like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Boom Clap,” and took over the airwaves with collaborations with Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop. She has co-written hits that went to the likes of Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani and Camila Cabello. These were all pure pop songs that felt like lab tested ear worms specifically designed to burrow into your subconscious. They were not typical, but meant to trigger the same cues as cookie-cutter pop tracks.
Charli XCX’s own albums were less pure pop. Her debut, “True Romance,” and the subsequent, “Sucker,” portrayed her as a punk outsider. She knew her way around a hook, but she wasn’t here to fit into a pretty pop diva mold.
She was pushed to be even more non-traditional after label difficulties led to a delay in her third album being released. She decided to release a mixtape, a pretty much unheard of format in the pop music space at the time. “Number 1 Angel” was an experiment, not just in format, but also in its contents. Similar to its follow up, “Pop 2,” the mixtape explored the intersection of pop and PC music, an emerging record label, genre and subculture, which has grown to occupy its own space in the past few years.
These mixtapes were a way for Charli XCX to take the pressure from the label off herself. It allowed her to follow her instinct and release music when she made it and when she wanted to without all the planning that comes from a full album release. Through these avant-garde pop experiments, she gained a strong fan base and worked her way back towards making an album.
That album comes in the form of “Charli,” and was released by Atlantic Records. The body of work serves as her third album, but feels like a bit of a reset button. It is a more formal and official release of her experimentation across the two mixtapes. It is a recognition that albums in the streaming age are very different than when she began her career, and now align much more with her vision.
Industry buzz over the past three years has been about the “waterfall” release or the “serialized” release strategy. The concept is that an artist or band will release a single, then another single a couple months later, then another. This cycle ends with them releasing a full album or EP consisting of those singles. It helps keep buzz building.
Charli XCX was a creature of the internet. She was discovered at 13-years-old on MySpace. She didn’t need a label executive to explain this concept to her, it was what her gut told her to do. It was how she knew people were consuming her music.
“Charli” was released over the span of a year. It started in October 2018 with the release of her collaboration with Troye Sivan, “1999,” and continued into 2019 with the release of “Blame It on Your Love.” The album was officially announced this June, and followed by five more promotional singles before its September release.
The final product is a slightly more pop-leaning version of “Pop 2.” The project was helmed by Charli XCX and her frequent collaborator A.G. Cook, the head of PC Music. It also features many returning feature artists, such as Kim Petras, Pabllo Vittar, Brooke Candy and Tommy Cash.
At its poppiest moments like “1999,” “Official” and “Blame It On Your Love,” “Charli” is thoroughly infectious. On the more experimental side are tracks like “Click” and “2099.” Charli pushes production boundaries, but maintains the pop hook mentality.
In total, there are 14 featured artists. This is a large number, but Charli XCX never gets lost amongst her collaborators. She manages to firmly establish her own voice in each track, and manages to keep her vision at the forefront of the project. In actuality, she excels when she is collaborating with another artist. The strongest tracks on the album are the perfectly orchestrated collaborations like “2099” and “Gone.”
“Gone,” featuring Christine and The Queens, is arguably one of the best pop songs released this year. It is a euphoric track about partying and insecurity, a dichotomy which is the centerpiece of the album. The driving bass line is the beginning of the pristine production on this track, that reaches a peak in the outro, as manipulated vocals are finagled into an EDM breakdown. While by no means a new technique or the only occasion it occurs on this album, it is done here in a way that feels like the logical release needed for the lyrical content and pushes the song structure outside of the verse-chorus-verse cliche.
While this is the standout track, the duration of the album contains interesting production and songwriting. It pushes the barriers between pop and electronic music, and encourages us to expand the horizons of pop music. And it does all of this while being super fun.
From the very start, Charli XCX has claimed to be a cultivator of the future of pop. This album certifies that.