Pop

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)

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