What do we know about Charli XCX?
Calling her a popstar seems to be doing her a disservice. Eschewing safety, on her latest album, Charli, she instead pushes the boundaries of what is considered pop music, turning the typical song structure on its head.
In a recent Pitchfork interview, she contemplates her own existence in the music world, saying, "'Are my friends real friends? Am I making art that’s right for me? Why am I still signed to a major label? Do I still care about charts? Should I still care about charts?’ I mean, I could be wrong, but I feel like I am one of the few artists who has a foothold on both mainstream Top 40 world and the more left-of-center underground world.” Many artists attempt to straddle the two worlds, but few, if any, manage it as successfully as Charli XCX.
Having slowly shifted her sound from a safer, more pop/rock friendly offering on True Romance, to transitioning fully into a pop musician that wouldn't be out of place in a movie about the distant future, Charli XCX proves with Charli that rules are meant to be broken. Lanes are meant to be left. The highway to success isn't straightforward, after all.
It's easy to forget that Charli is a long time after her last LP. After all, since 2014's Sucker, Charli has revolutionised her career in a way most artists could only dream of, veering from radio-friendly pop with an experimental tinge, to music that speaks to those who embrace the addictive nature of a sleepless night out. We've received multiple mixtapes, singles and EPs, all of which have developed a new image for Charli, being someone not afraid to own her music, and not someone that wants to ever conform at the risk of sacrificing her vision.
It's this dichotomy of her discography that is reflected in her as a musician. Her social media musings transition from sombre to excitable in an evening, and while it's hard to keep up, it's all part of the ride for her fanbase, nicknamed Charli's Angels. In many ways, her music speaks to the part of the brain that harbours both these feelings of manic confidence and insecurity - taking what you deserve, it seems, is a lot harder than it looks.
Charli's list of collaborators over the last few years reads like a who's who of the leaders of underground pop: SOPHIE, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kim Petras, Caroline Polachek, Sky Ferreira and many, many more. Discussing her frequent work with other artists with Exclaim, Charli says, "The collaboration thing is just more fun," she says. "These are people who I really think are the best artists in the world. They're the people who inspire me." Having herself inspired both older and newer artists to take charge of their careers, and make music that represents truly who they are, it's only fitting that Charli does the same on this LP.
From the opening track, Next Level Charli, which is over in a blink of an eye, Charli signals her intentions. The first few lines read:
I go hard, I go fast
And I never look back
I go speeding on the highway
Burn rubber, no crash
Turn the volume up in the party
Put your hands up and dance
Bump bump, in the rave
Go forever and ever
And bounce, never sleep
This isn't music for the lovers of the 9-5, eight/eight/eight sleep/fun/work lifestyle. It reaches and grips listeners in a way that feels like a direct release of endorphins and doesn't let go - and this is how the album tracks for its duration of a better part of an hour. 14 artists feature on nine of the 15 tracks on this album, but you're never unsure who's at the core of the track: it's Charli, baby.
Though almost half of the album is already released in some capacity, it nevertheless sounds fresh in an album context. Tracks like 1999 and Blame It On Your Love are both familiar and new, and while pop music is usually consumed in bite-sized chunks, Charli's music is a paradox - enjoyable on its own, best consumed as a project.
Click and Shake It are some of the most out-there moments, and it's arguable that the singles we've heard from this album are just that: more accessible elements of the album, which seems like a misnomer for someone so experimental. However, Charli XCX has never shied from the fact that her knack for writing sticky hooks is almost second to none, just that housing them in safe, sterilised music isn't her end goal.
In the same interview with Exclaim, Charli doesn't outright reject commercial success: "I'm not against commercial success — if it happens naturally, that's cool. But I'm not going to change the music that I make and sacrifice my creative decisions for the sake of maybe having a successful song." We're a long, long way from the artist that wrote Fancy and I Love It, and yet, those songs were necessary to get to where Charli XCX is now.
This is an album for the fans, and an album for newcomers alike. But really, it's an album for Charli XCX, and that's when she's at her breathtaking best.