Charli XCX set a strong precedent for herself ahead of the release of her third album Charli. “Honestly, I’m so fucking iconic,” she tweeted after months of tweeting about how good the album is. She does everything with a hint of sarcasm but there’s also a self-belief behind this recent album. For the firs time, she sounds comfortable, like she’s consolidating on a sound rather than creating a new one.
Since the release of 2013’s True Romance, she’s been caught in a strange middle ground. Was she aiming at the underground or the mainstream? 2015’s Sucker muddied the waters even more, coming off the back of two US top 10’s in her own Boom Clap and Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. She was poised to be the next pop superstar and yet she never quite got there.
She tried. 2015’s After The Afterparty was a somewhat confused attempt to appease both audiences but ultimately the preceding twisted Vroom Vroom proved she was longing to make pop music that sat outside of the box. She scrapped her SOPHIE and Stargate-produced third album XCX World after a series of leaks which turned out to be the best thing that could happen to her. In 2017, she released two mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop2 – a duo of visionary works that saw her labelled as both a creator and curator of futuristic pop.
Without Pop2, in particular, it’s unlikely that we’d be receiving an album as assured as Charli. With a little direction from her sonic confidente A.G. Cook, she’s invented a glitchy, robotic, emotional and braggadocios pocket of pop. It’s her first focussed album that aims to please only those that see her vision.
If there was any doubt about her intention opener Next Level Charli sorts it. It’s an anthem for the ‘Angels’ – a head-rush party track that’s the sonic equivalent of the seconds of euphoria poppers give you. It’s a sonic assault but it’s necessary. It’s a mantra that shows she hasn’t come to play. This is Charli unfiltered.
Next Level Charli ranks as one of the stranger songs on the record but it descends into even more experimental territory. Click, Unlock It‘s grittier sister, is a crushing, distorted track that recruits pop rebels Kim Petras and Tommy Cash. Together they work towards one of the wildest outros you’re likely to hear anytime soon. Shake It, on the other hand, reprises I Got It pulling out a series of mind-bending sounds. Among those is a whispered verse from Cupcakke and a breathy Charli hook which ends up sounding aquatic.
She knows that pop’s future isn’t all about twisted moments though and her songwriting truly shines through on some of the more tender moments. Warm adopts Haim for a sleek, slippery declaration of love while I Don’t Wanna Know borrows echoed ’80s beats for an emotional mourning of fading love.
The record largely centres around a tentative relationship. White Mercedes, the best ballad she’s ever written, has her accepting the blame for the relationship’s issues. “Hate myself but really love you…all I know is I don’t deserve you,” she sings, her auto-tuned voice gliding over the beat. On Official – possibly the album’s shining moment – she wants to lock it down. Over a minimal, twinkling beat she sings, “Look at us isn’t it obvious? Is it so dangerous? Is it so complicated?”
We’re let into Charli’s world more than ever before here. While the sounds surrounding her may be envisioned from the future, her emotions are present and she’s at her best when she’s direct. Thoughts is a hazy comedown, questioning everything. It’s the flip-side of Next Level Charli‘s euphoria and it’s glorious. “Are my friends really friends now,” she sings, her voice almost disappearing at the top of her register. If you’re looking to party Charli has plenty of moments but it’s strangely more intriguing when she’s on the comedown.
Gone, arguably the best song of the year, details social anxiety with a claustrophobic beat. She’s pulled from the situation by Christine & The Queens who delivers a stunningly liberating verse. Charli both supports and is supported by her collaborators. There’s not one moment, apart from maybe a fleeting Lizzo verse, that sounds out of place here. Even when she’s at her lowest, like on February 2017, there’s strength in the people surrounding her.
That’s partying, after all. No matter what space you’re in, you’re elevated by a group of people in their feelings too. Music drowns out conversation, you’re left to connect communally to the loudest sound.
From a production perspective, Charli may be looking into the crystal ball of pop music but the heart of this record is present. The future won’t be bereft of emotion after all and she knows that. Even when she’s speeding towards 2099 she’s singing, “they don’t get me.” She may be racing ahead but she can’t leave her feelings behind and it’s the ability to access them that makes Charli such a triumph.