It’s apt that Charli, Charli XCX's heavily delayed third album, begins with a track called “Next Level Charli.” Since the 2014 release of last album proper, Sucker, the woman credited with excavating both pop music and dip dye has been a singles-n-mixtapes artist, as a result of label disputes and a desire to create beyond what the rules for pop princesses would traditionally allow.
Over the past half-decade of doing things her way, her profile has certainly risen – she’s been responsible for the major label hits of other artists (most recently she had a writing credit on Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita”), and lately, a support slot on Taylor Swift’s tour, plus crowd-friendly collabs with Troye Sivan and Lizzo in her own catalogue have nudged her further into the mainstream. Yet the Topshop But Like, Rebellious vibe of Sucker has long been parked, in favour of a style that she described best herself with the title of her most recent mixtape: December 2017’s Pop 2.
Pop 2 was all chrome and mirrors, and along with the releases that preceded it, March 2017’s Number 1 Angel – if Impulse body spray was music – and 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, it cemented Charli as one of the most genuinely interesting, innovative and thoughtful artists in pop. Along with her partner in futurism AG Cook, the two tapes saw her reaching an android hand into the future, and coming away with something that really did feel like the sequel to pop music. Aside from the metallic sound, which gestured to the future as we thought we knew it 40 years ago, she embraced then upended tropes, showcasing a collaborative model proliferated by guests.
After the cult success of these mixtapes – and because Brand XCX seemed to be doing quite well without any of these ‘‘‘albums,’’’ thank you very much – the announcement that her third album Charli would actually be released in 2019 left many people, including me, wondering whether a return for Charli to the album form was actually a step backwards. We'd grown so used to her working on the fly and sharing music with fans in real time, a model worked that worked well for her.
Then, of course, Charli – with its cover art where she literally stands naked but for a few strips of pink metal, Christlike with arms outstretched, a martyr for Pop – proved all of us Doubting Thomases wrong. Immediately, “Next Level Charli” pulls up with a cherry vodka vroom vroom, imploring you to “turn up the volume in your Prius”. It’s a comfortingly familiar message from HRH Charli XCX of Caning It: get in loser, we’re going to the future.
In other words, though Charli is Charli XCX in album mode, it’s simply an extension of what she’s built over the past few years – you might even call it the “next level.” That’s not to say that it’s necessarily better in quality than anything she’s made over the past three years – she’s created at an impressively consistent level over this period – but her pop domination ambitions are more barefaced here than they were on Pop 2 or Number 1 Angel. She chooses to include the radio-friendly Troye Sivan collab “1999,” and though her sound remains as industrial-lite as ever, the songs are showier (first single “Gone” with Christine and the Queens, and especially its classic, catchy pop chorus, felt like a proclamation of an era that was both the same and new). Her vocals on tracks like “White Mercedes” are some of the best of her career.
The record is 50 minutes of pure, distilled Charli (particularly in the run of songs between “White Mercedes” and “Shake It,” which could never have existed without Pop 2 before them), but with proper stardom in its sights. Charli took five years to properly establish her vision instead of rushing into a post-Sucker career that felt wrong, and now she’s able to be an artist on terms that feel more like her own. These include, as always, inviting a number of others in on her sound. Interestingly, this time around, high-profile US stars like Haim and Lizzo are counted among her collaborators – another indication of where her goals might lie – but though these artists have their own strong aesthetics, here they’re at the mercy of Charli XCX: on “Warm” in particular, the usually earthy Haim are a three-headed, AutoTuned harmony.
However, that’s not to say that she’s left her old crew behind. Cook’s imprint is all over this record (he has a production credit on all but three of the tracks, and co-writes on loads too). Charli ushers in many of the artists she’s featured on her mixtapes onto Charli too. She is, for example, little more than a master of ceremonies on the reliably filthy “Shake It,” a who’s-who of her longtime collaborators – Pablo Vittar, Brooke Candy, and CupcakKe – with the added gusto of bounce legend Big Freedia.
And just as she has incorporated her often collective way of working here, she also hasn’t changed her own process particularly. She’s still the artist she’s been since 2016, making work in real time: “Blame It On Your Love,” of course, is a version of Pop 2’s transcendent “Track 10” (the production you hear on Charli is believed to be closer to the track's original demo, from 2016 or 2017); “Next Level Charli” is a rework of an A.G. Cook track from 2015; and the final track, “2099,” also featuring Sivan, is a self-consciously futuristic counterpoint to the giddy, straight-up, and crucially mainstream nostalgia pop of “1999.”
Charli, then, most of all, is a lesson in the fact that you can have the success you want doing things your own way. After all, even if it means waiting a longer time to get to where you want to be, it’s better to have taken five years to, you know, signpost completely new possibilities for pop music, than to have settled into its pre-existing grooves without even trying. To have done so, in fact, is not just smart – it’s Charli, baby.