Charli XCX’s ‘Charli’ Pushes Past Uncomfortable Feelings Into Pop’s Future

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“I feel so unstable / f*cking hate these people / how they makin’ me feel”
—Charli XCX, “Gone”

Charli XCX has never played nice with the rest of the music industry. “It kind of felt like I was getting up on stage and waving to 5-year-olds,” she sighed in a recent Pitchfork profile, referencing the record-breaking Reputation stadium tour, when she opened for Taylor Swift on an all-female bill that included Camila Cabello. A clipped apology shortly followed — she wasn’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but the sentiment remained. Charli might have been a teen star, but she’s always been more interested in the adult feelings that lurk behind pop machinations.

That inclination that snaps into focus on Charli — a mid-career self-titled record that asserts her place, scribbling graffiti in the margins of mainstream pop — is a chosen calling and not a backup plan. It’s the rare, radical pop artist like Charli who moves those margins from the fringes to the center, but this project is good enough that it might do just that. “My album is beautiful and soft and aggressive and emotional and clubby and tender all at once,” she told us back in June when her effusive self-commentary was reaching a fever peak. Sometimes overconfidence is a bad sign before a big release, but it felt good to hear a female artist flat out call her own work brilliant; it feels even better to know that she judged her own output correctly.

Charli’s been in the pop game for a decade now, uploading Myspace demos at 16 and getting signed by Asylum Records at 18, casually giving away her biggest hits early on — “I Love It” to Icona Pop in 2013, and “Fancy” to Iggy Azalea in 2014 — seemingly confident that if she needed them, she’d just make more. But when an artist puts out a self-titled album with their career already in full swing it usually represents a reset or regeneration of sorts. Instead, Charli is a double down, truer to the it’s Charli baby no-f*cks aesthetic than anything she’s ever done, a hurricane of first-person love songs that risk it all by getting downright weird with her now-familiar crew of fellow outcasts.

The Pop 2 playbook is at the heart of Charli, proving Charlotte Aitchison knows a good groove when she finds it, and this record scales the same club-drug heights and similar introspective, self-doubting lows as her spontaneous end-of-2017-mixtape, all set to the glitchy-gloss of A.G. Cook production that works so well with her blunt, prancing lyrical style. “Next Level Charli” is the kind of album opener that pop fans dream about, a self-fulfilling prophecy stuffed with swagger and tongue-in-cheek one-liners like “turn the volume up in your Prius” (with “party” and “bedroom” subbed in before and after) that runs a touch too fast, a priming technique that makes the rest of the album flow even more freely.

On the album’s second track, “Gone” featuring Christine And The Queens, she lets loose like she’s alone in a Prius with a friend: “I feel so unstable / F*cking hate these people / How they’re making me feel lately / They making me weird, baby.” Of course, if any of the people in question hear you speak about them in this way, there’s immediate backlash. Still, there’s something endearing in voicing this kind of anti-social frustration via pop anthem, and it maybe doubles here as a summation of Charli’s whole take on the music industry, or just a cry of exasperation that many women working in this field can relate to.

The fact remains: You can’t produce great sh*t, or even be your best self, in an environment where you feel crazy. Instead, Aitchison constantly ventures outside of the usual suspects, drawing in collaborators like Christine, the still-emerging Troye Sivan, the insanely underrated Tommy Cash, the world’s most prominent transgender pop star Kim Petras, and plenty more, to populate the party she actually wants to be at. She uses Haim’s whisper-shouts to complement her own scratchy, sharp vocals on “Warm” and lets Sky Ferreira on the curb-stomping synthy exorcism, “Cross You Out.” (That Sky sounds like old school Bat For Lashes on this track is the best compliment I can give any mid-indie pop singer)

Along with the early standout “Gone,” some of the strongest songs on the record had already been released: the Troye Sivan-featuring nostalgic hit “1999” and the feisty Lizzo-featuring revamp of “Blame It On Your Love.” While diehard fans will lament the death of the original “Track 10,” Charli’s process lets us follow along with her progress, and the finished version is an all-around stronger entry in her songwriting canon. But there’s plenty here beyond the initial singles, too, with “Click” as arguably the best song on the whole record. This unexpected collab track with both Kim Petras and Tommy Cash invokes the spirit of Kanye’s massive posse track “Clique” in warrior-fembot form, talking sh*t about nudes and how these pop outsiders have held each other up.

Later, the superstar cast of Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar to all join in on “Shake It,” creating a crew track that doubles as a razor-sharp, deeply experimental dance meditation. And another much-anticipated collab, “February 2017,” spotlights two pop newcomers, Yaeji and Clairo, who add soft-focus luminescence to a song about asking for forgiveness. And as much as she likes collaborating with others, one of the strongest points about Charli is the way it proves she doesn’t need to do that — even indicating, at times, that it’s possible she’s stronger on her own.

The feelings-soaked “Thoughts” and Julia Michaels-leaning “White Mercedes” both attempt to dissect a relationship that’s been pushed past the point of no return, but Charli’s ability to characterize the obsession and regret of a breakup in aimless drives, pills, and too-fast cars in a way that doesn’t feel rote is a reminder that a lesser songwriter would clumsily flail using familiar tropes. Though Charli flits between heartbreak, self-doubt and supreme confidence across the fifteen tracks on this album, she does so without getting tangled in any one mood.

In the past, Charli has been cast as a singles artist, finding success in one or two big tracks but struggling to put together an entire album that reflected her obvious talents and unconventional ideas about pop music. And even where her most recent and most-praised project, Pop 2, cropped up as an example of the lane she wanted to create in the industry, overall, that tape still felt rushed and unpolished. Charli is the ideal follow up in every way: it’s shimmering and decisive and never sacrifices any of the feverish, dreamy elements that make her who she is. In fact, it’s most effective in establishing just how uncomfortable Charli feels with the status quo, how she seeks to push both herself and her peers past the obvious choices and into the future. After all, that’s what adults do — name their feelings, and work to own them.

Charli is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.

Charli XCX is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.