Review Summary: don't say she didn't warn you
Charli XCX has been writing music and subverting expectations since 2006. While the rest of us were busy not taking bubblegum pop music seriously, she was on her way to release her debut single in a world that still didn’t think songs could be as meaningful as albums. About a decade later, her talent was finally recognized (first by the diverse public, second by the straight white male critics, per the usual pattern). Now with the connections to the music scene (enough that the “Boys” music video was possible), the financial success, and the fanbase she always deserved, she can finally make what she wants, with who she wants. This led to the Vroom Vroom EP
, which was appreciated for its abrasive, plastic sound, even if the actual songs or vocals weren’t given the credit they deserved as anything but frames for SOPHIE. Number 1 Angel
came a year later, and it has an even fuller production pallet, with most of the PC Music crew lending their skills to her songwriting, and five underappreciated women as “feat.” credits, yet nobody really seems to want to talk about it. Words like “generic” and “uninteresting” are being used to describe it, when they would be better suited to that continuance of the same old argument that “all pop music is the same.” This is not a same-old, forgettable release – N1A
screams out talent harder than your favorite black metal band has ever screamed anything.
First off, these are just well-written songs. “Dreamer” is the intro pop musicians all over the world wish they could make, building tension and hype from “x. c. x.” to the instrumental finale – this is the transition from her past to her future. Songs like “Roll With Me” and “Lipgloss” push through traditional song structure into something very EDM-inspired, building up slowly and then dropping down to nothing again, adding variety and negative space in a genre often too obsessed with creating a perfect hook. “Blame It On U” is a relative dud, but even it has moments that make it work – “badboymakeabadgirlbadboymakeabadgirl” feels like a euphoric breath of air. Meanwhile, the lyrics tell stories of heartbreak and love in honest terms.
“You know we’re never coming undone, coming undone
cause I wanna stay forever
I know that you’re the only one, only one”
Words like these sound like they were somehow extracted directly from Charlotte’s brain in the midst of the experience. She tells these stories in ways that remind me of the spontaneity of singer-songwriters like Dylan. And just like Dylan, she knows how to use the longer format of an album (or mixtape, in Charli’s case) to spin a web of stories, all connected despite their apparent contradictions at times, with an overall tone of longing. This is not just a cashgrab compilation of throwaways – there’s a clear path to the madness, a map to the feelings.
The most exciting part of this project for me was the long list of collaborators. Producers affiliated with PC Music like A.G. Cook, Easyfun, and SOPHIE have shown themselves over the past few years to be some of the most consistent new talents in the realm, ignoring any false claims of objective good taste so far that the press could not conceive their art as anything but ironic. They continue the good fight on N1A
, adding such critically repulsive touches as a synthesized guitar solo on “ILY2” and sparkling sound effects on the tone-setting introduction and conclusions “Dreamer” and “Lipgloss.” But they just created the aesthetic frosting that allows you to see more depth in the songs Charli wrote – the vocal collaborators actually add more of this depth, each with songwriting credits and a history of pop success. Starrah’s exaggerated autotune, ABRA’s seemingly carefree verse, and Cupcakke’s stunning propulsive force add layers to already great songs, helping add interest for every repeat listen. But the most stunning collaboration of all is Uffie, who has been almost entirely silent since her severely underrated LP Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans
dropped back in 2010. When she drops a mere 20-second verse on “Babygirl,” already the best song on the whole tape, it just raises the excitement to another level.
But it’s thanks to Charli XCX that any of these collaborations are even possible. It all really comes back to her, and her work for the past 11 years. I’m tempted to address N1A
as the culmination of her potential as an artist, the realization of her 14-year-old dreams, but this is a pre-album mixtape
, not even supported by her label. It feels strange for me to say she’s not there yet, considering this tape – that most people in her position would use for discarded tracks and unfinished ideas – is the best pop project of the year, but it’s true. Here’s hoping for her future.