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13 September 2019

Charli XCX’s reckoning of pop is smart, receptive and never misses a beat

The singer's long-awaited third album, Charli, marks her out as an innovative artist aware of pop's expanding possibilities. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Officially, Charli is only Charli XCX’s third album, which feels a small crop for an artist who has already made a significant attempt to redefine “pop” music. 

That isn’t to say XCX hasn’t dabbled in big-time chart-topping arena pop. Since 2013, the British singer has collaborated with Icona Pop on the international hit “I love It”, featured on Iggy Azalea’s US number one “Fancy”, and more recently, supported Taylor Swift on her 42-date Reputation stadium tour. She’s been part of the pop machine as a writer to the stars too, penning hits for Selena Gomez, Blondie, Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes.

Yet despite these accomplishments, Charli XCX still holds only a marginal presence within the pop sphere. Her previous album, 2014’s Sucker, placed at just 15 in the UK album charts; her upcoming Halloween show at London’s O2 Brixton Academy (capacity almost 5,000) has sold out – but it took a few weeks to get there. 

XCX doesn’t fit in with a normal pop crowd, and she knows it: she was criticised over comments about how opening for Swift was like “getting up on stage and waving to 5-year-olds”. She later clarified the statement: “I’d been playing a tonne of 18+ club shows and so to be on a stage in front of all ages was new to me.”

And it’s true: the excitement with XCX’s music – and the reason she has a strong following from fans who more usually align themselves with the avant-garde rather than pop – lies in the incredible vitality and mature sensibilities of her show. She’s destined to be a slight outlier by the very essence of her individualism. Sometimes, that means overt sexuality. More often, it means an awareness of consumerism, genres outside of her own, and the pop context in which she is working. Hers is pop music at its best: smart, receptive, never missing a beat.

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“Next Level Charli”, the opening track on Charli, released today, immediately declares the album as pop music for the self-aware. XCX sings with the knowledge – and the knowledge that her listeners have too – that this album has been a long time coming. Its original lead single was 2016’s “After the Afterparty”, followed by 2017’s exceptionally meme-able “Boys”. Neither track appears on the final album. 

Between Sucker and Charli came two “mixtapes”, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2collections of songs recorded behind the back of XCX’s major label, Atlantic. Their existence reflects her frustration at the confines the industry sets out on artists marked out – as XCX was – as young pop princesses in the making. (When UK first-week sales of her crucial debut record, True Romance, were just 1,241, Atlantic would have known she wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for.)

But in order for fans to listen to the mixtapes widely, they had to be released on all major streaming platforms anyway, leading listeners to ask: what is the difference between this mixtape and another album, really? On “Next level Charli”, XCX’s sped-up vocals sound as though she doesn’t have time to lose – and after all this waiting around, she’s right. 

XCX, then, is an artist heavily aware of herself as a product, a commodity. “Don’t care ’bout the records you sold / Co-sign if you did it alone”, she sings on “Click”, an R’n’B-infused track punctuated with squirming synths and features from German dance-pop singer Kim Petras and Estonian rapper and multimedia artist Tommy Cash. 

In XCX’s world, R’n’B and electronica sit neatly alongside sugar-coated pop. She first worked with the label and art collective PC Music in 2015, and the tactile sonic quality that producers such as AG Cook and SOPHIE (who brings her own cult-like following to every project she works on) have brought to XCX’s work since then leans into her playful, plastic-y tendencies. Theirs is a pop-candy approach that fits just as keenly into the pop sphere as it does in the synthetic electronica of PC Music artists such as Hannah Diamond. Its production is squeaky clean but, unlike the pop music Atlantic would have been after from XCX, gritty too: on the AG Cook-produced “I Don’t Wanna Know”, XCX manages to make a beautiful ballad out of drunken slurs and synthetically traced syllables. 

Much of what makes XCX stand apart from her straight pop peers is her wide-eyed willingness to embrace other artists, for both production and performance purposes – and not just those who are already filling arenas. In the spirit of Kali Uchis, whose 2018 album Isolation was filled to the brim with intriguing partnerships and featured vocalists, XCX’s greatest power lies in bringing out the most intensive of collaborations. 

This isn’t as easy as just ringing someone up and inviting them into the studio with you: it has to feel authentic. On “1999”, Charli’s eventual lead single, XCX’s chemistry with Troye Sivan is irresistibly apparent, their lending into each other’s verses impressively intimate for such a high-power pop track. Ever aware of her place in a pop context, XCX even gives Britney Spears a shout-out when she sings “I just wanna go back / Sing ‘Hit me, baby, one more time.’” Sivan re-appears on Charli on “2099”, a spacey track that makes room for XCX in the future of pop – likely poking fun at the headlines heralding XCX as “the popstar of the future”. “Don’t make decisions for me / You don’t know nothin’,” is XCX’s response.

Calling XCX the sound of the “future” is a lazy way of saying she is innovative, thinking brightly about what pop music should be, without falling back on overused tropes. Actually, what XCX is doing is very much of this moment, and the artists she works alongside read like a roll-call of our generation’s finest pop players, be they the Californian sun-drenched Haim sisters (“Warm”), the wildly danceable genius of Chris – formerly Christine and the Queens – (“Gone”), or the self-loving rapper/flautist Lizzo (“Blame It On Your Love”). These artists are all working, broadly, in the pop sphere – and, happily, “broadly” is enough for XCX.

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