Review Summary: The motherfucking future
Charli is a roller coaster of an album, complete with build-ups, payoffs, stomach-churning loops, and breakneck stretches, all of which may invoke fear and exhilaration at different turns. And at the front seat is Charli XCX herself, utterly unafraid to lead the charge. She has designed every twist and turn of this ride, and is more than happy to usher along fans and newcomers alike in her wake. Though still entrenched firmly in pop, Charli is light years away from the sounds of her previous two albums. That fact alone illustrates her oft reiterated point about pop being the diverse, volatile genre that it is. But Charli XCX doesn’t need comparisons to her previous work to prove it; all she needs is Charli, her most sonically eclectic, emotionally rich, and ultimately satisfying album yet. (And yes, that includes—because it should—her mixtapes.) Throughout its course, Charli XCX uses pop as a means to capture the extreme ends of sound and feeling.
Charli XCX considers this to be her most personal record, so it’s telling that she brings idea of the party front and center with “Next Level Charli.” Rather than view the party as the decadent means of escapism it’s often treated as in contemporary pop and R&B, she treats it like a religious experience, repeating her verses like they’re meditative chants. “I go hard, I go fast / And I never look back,” she nearly shouts. Suddenly, partying is a way to get in touch with friends and exorcise demons (or at least drown them out for a time). Listening to “Next Level Charli”, one gets the sense that partying isn’t such a sinister thing. It can be fun, it can be happiness, it can foster connections. Yet just as soon as she settles into the party, she decides to leave it with “Gone”, a powerful and revealing track that finds Charli and collaborator Christine and the Queens literally loathing the people around them. It’s a testament to Charli’s skill as a songwriter that she’s able to pit these tracks against each other, yet still make both sound heartfelt and even complementary.
Most of Charli’s many featured artists function the same way, serving to reinforce whatever idea Charli is trying to get across on any given song. Sky Ferreira delivers a cathartic performance on the exceptional “Cross You Out”; Troye Sivan waxes nostalgic on the catchy-as-hell “1999”; Kim Petras and and Tommy Cash help Charli create one of the hardest, most creative bangers of the year in “Click”. The brilliant exception to the rule is “Shake it”, where Charli is content to provide a suggestive-enough hook, distort it to hell, and allow her collaborators to do the dirty work. And when I say dirty, I mean dirty. If Big Freedia’s verse is a narration of a drug-fueled descent into hell, then CupcakKe and (especially) Brook Candy’s verses are detailed portraits of all the freaky sex *** you’re likely to find on the scene. Brooke’s verse is so unabashedly over the top it almost makes me glad I can’t understand Pabllo Vittar’s final verse, as his delivery is just as gleefully perverse. The end result is a trippy, sexy, nightmarish track that displays Charli XCX’s full powers as a curator with the uncanny ability to not only bring together a motley squad of massive names, but actually make them sound good together.
To help bring her vision to life, Charli XCX has enlisted a slew of producers from across the PC Music spectrum, helmed by Charli XCX’s own creative director and PC Music label head A.G. Cook. The album consequently borrows sounds from bubblegum bass, hip hop, mid-2000’s dance pop, 80’s synth pop, contemporary pop, and whatever else feels good. It shouldn’t work, but it does, primarily because of the unpredictable holographic sheen that unifies the whole thing. A song like “February 2017” might seem out of place until Charli’s vocals get sent through a robotic filter and the track culminates in a bubblegum bass finale. Even weak links “Warm” and “Blame It On Your Love” are made several degrees more interesting because of the glistening sounds at play. The group of songs which on paper might seem most jeopardized by A.G. Cook’s lurid production style is the run of tracks stretching from “Thoughts” to “Official” (minus “Blame It On Your Love”, which feels hopelessly out of place in the track listing). These comprise the emotional (and literal) center of the album and, interestingly, end up benefiting the most from Cook’s touch. Whether it’s the swarming synths on “Thoughts”, the skittering beat on “Silver Cross”, or Charli’s heavily autotuned voice on the otherwise spare “I Don’t Want to Know”, the glitchy production helps make genuine whatever she’s expressing rather than drowning it out. It’s the sound of an artist completely at home in the synthetic niche she’s carved out for herself.
After traveling to the past (“1999”) and lamenting the present ( “February 2017”), Charli finally looks to the future on the album’s closer “2099”, where she once again makes good use of Troye Sivan as her partner in time. It’s a strange, disjointed track in which she analyzes her place in the music industry, seemingly referring to it as a prison from which she “always got away”. “Don’t make decisions for me, you don’t know nothin’ / I’m Pluto, Neptune, pull up, roll up, future, future, ah”. She voices her insecurities, yet is fully confident in her trailblazing powers. Whether or not Charli XCX actually is the future, it’s undeniable that Charli’s deft embrace of pop in all its forms establishes her as a force to be reckoned with in the pop world. And its roll-out, one of the most hyped in recent memory, proves that the world is watching with bated breath to see what she does next. It’s okay, you can blink. There’s no way you could possibly miss it.