Album Review: Charli XCX Shapes The Future Of Pop On ‘Charli’

Charli XCX refuses to do the same thing twice. Why? Because that would be boring. And she is anything but boring. The pop innovator recognizes her insatiable hunger for evolution on the first lines of Charli. “I go hard. I go fast, and I never look back,” she chants over slick synths on the aptly-titled “Next Level Charli.” That realization sets the scene for what is surely her most revolutionary collection to date. Out September 13, it ranks as the 27-year-old’s first studio album since her sophomore effort Sucker.

But it hardly marks her first sonic shift since shouting “fuck you, sucker” on the pop-punk opus five years back. The hitmaker continually morphed with a slew of mixtapes, EPs and collaborations between LPs. And she’s done it again. This time, she creates a radical body of music that looks directly into the future. It’s not just about creating for parties, though. In the process of crafting for the year “2099” – a date set by one of two Troye Sivan collabs – she peels back personal layers to expose her inner workings like never before.

The end result is a shockingly vulnerable, intensely collaborative and purposefully jarring tracklist that rewrites the rulebook more times than you can count. While a writing credit on Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” proves Charli is capable of conquering the charts, it’s clear that that is not her main gaol. Instead of chasing popular trends, she does things her own way over a unique soundscape. The album features infinitely more furious grinding, clanking, crashing, whining and banging than you’d expect from a pop project.

And no two efforts on the 15-song tracklist sound remotely similar. That was evident with just a passing listen to the already-released singles. “1999” is a high-octane, radio-friendly banger that breaks Charli’s own rule of never looking back. Hey, it’s her world. We’re just living in it. And it’s hard to complain when the result is such fun. However, the frivolity feels out of place next to the likes of her Christine And The Queens-assisted “Gone.” The duo’s lushly produced ode to feeling like an outsider is the cream of the crop.

The vulnerability she displays on the anthem is likely new to more casual fans. If you only know “Fancy” or “Boys,” you may be surprised by how much Charli’s heart bleeds on the album. Tracks with HAIM (“Warm”), Sky Ferreira (“Cross You Out”), Lizzo (“Blame It On Your Love”), Clairo and Yaeji (“February 2017”) find the hitmaker and her super-powered collaborators delving further into equally relatable themes. There’s loneliness, neediness, self-sabotage and heartbreak on the downside.

“February 2017” for instance offers a particularly painful glimpse at a failed relationship. “Sorry I broke you down. Sorry I tore your heart. I ripped it all apart,” Charli mourns. “I only know what’s good once I have lost it all.” The bouncy “Blame It On Your Love,” a re-tooling of Pop 2’s “Track 10,” is an equally emo bop. But it’s not all dark. There’s a raw beauty to hearing the “Focus” angel urge falling in love and risking it all on “Warm.” Meanwhile, she and Sky find refreshingly powerful catharsis over undulating beats on “Cross You Out.”

That brings us to “2099,” which bookends the LP with “Next Level Charli.” Opening with drill-like synths, the most recent single is something of a belated mission statement with an at times almost painfully sharp arrangement. “Got visions, levels. They don’t get me. Quiet, no discussions. Please hush,” Charli growls after an introduction that’s the musical equivalent of either hopping into a time machine or visiting the dentist. This is one of several collaborations that showcases the hitmaker’s unique relationship with her fellow artists, too.

At no point does the diva seem fearful of being outshone by the 13 acts that join her. Instead, she takes joy in working alongside them to highlight their abilities. She and Troye flit around each other instead of staying confined to previously determined verses. That passion for collaboration also comes across on the star-studded “Shake It.” Charli is joined by Big Freedia CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar on the strip club-friendly banger beamed in from the distant future. Her heavily edited voice becomes part of the constantly evolving production.

It reaches the point that the only things tethering her to reality are her desperately panting breaths and the team working around her. Kim Petras and Tommy Cash hop on for the final collab “Click.” The Woo-Ah Princess shows off her flow on a predictably fierce verse. I don’t care who you are, but you should get an instant boost from hearing “Charli’s up in this bitch. Kim is up in this bitch.” Toss in an extended outro that was (accurately) compared to monster trucks having sex by Pitchfork, and it’s another must-hear from the first half of the tracklist. Now we’re moving into the part that’s just Charli.

We already know she works well with others, but her solo songs deserve just as much attention. First up is “Thoughts,” a woozy, drug-addled moment about chasing away thoughts of a lover. “Driving round in Hollywood. I can only think ’bout you. Everlasting pain, and it weighs on my body. It’s you,” she sings stretching her voice to its upper reaches. The heart-wrenching, answering machine confessional draws parallels to Rihanna’s “Higher.” Similar to the ANTI track, there’s a particular pain that comes from hearing the usually unshakable diva unravel.

Charli’s heart continues breaking on “I Don’t Wanna Know.” This one is an electro-propelled dirge. What is she mourning? The death of a relationship. And it depicts the terrible feeling of knowing exactly what your no-good lover did with picture-perfect clarity. “I don’t wanna know. I already know what you’ve done, what you’ve done,” she fragilely whispers over sparse beats. It is probably the closest we come to balladry on the LP, and I consider it a sign Charli should pare it back more frequently.

Then there’s “White Mercedes,” which is another of Charli’s pinnacles. Here the Brit puts her riotous lifestyle on the chopping block. “Like a white Mercedes, always been running too fast,” she sings. “When your heart is breaking, you keep on taking me back. Hate myself. I really love you. Hurting you feels like I’m hurting as well.” She continues lobbing those complaints at herself until hitting the most true realization: “All I know is I don’t deserve you.” Talk about chill-inducing. Next to “Gone,” this is easily the most obvious hit out on the tracklist.

The beats per minute pick up on “Silver Cross.” You can actually feel your heartbeat racing as the production (courtesy of executive producer A.G. Cook) repeatedly crescendos and recedes under Charli’s voice. Not only that, but here you experience the dangerous racing she alludes to on “White Mercedes,” and it is an admittedly bruising ride. Now all that’s left is “Official,” which should be saved for last. It is the brightest light on the tracklist. After all of the tenuous connections the hitmaker builds and (frequently) breaks, we finally have a love song. And it’s a damn good one.

On it Charli lays out all of the little things that add up to a sweetly intimate love story. “The things that I say when you don’t wanna listen. Things that you say when I make bad decisions. Things that we do by the sink in my kitchen,” she coos. “I remember our first date. No chocolate and no bouquet But the way that you kissed me… These are the things that could make us official.” It’s the sort of hesitant falling that wouldn’t be out of place on Taylor Swift’s mega-seller Lover. And here it is done just as well if not better.

In 2019, few pop stars are capable of both achieving mainstream success and reconfiguring what pop music should sound like. Charli XCX does just that. The new album is a melting pot of pop experimentation. And that is both its greatest strength and most glaring weakness. In an effort to create for the future, Charli shifts too constantly to offer a cohesive listening experience. There are no outright misses on the tracklist. However, nothing comes together sonically.

What unites the LP is that commendable thirst to continuously morph and the purity of Charli’s emotions. And what we get from those qualities is a wild but very enjoyable ride. There will never be anything exactly like it from Charli (or anyone else for that matter) ever again, which makes it doubly precious.

Score: 4/5

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