Charli XCX — Pop 2 Review

FFO: Banks, Grimes, Sophie, A.G. Cook

On Repeat: Backseat (feat. Carly Rae Jepsen), Out Of My Head (feat. Tove Lo and ALMA), Femmebot (feat. Dorian Electra and Mykki Blanco), I Got It (feat. Brooke Candy, CupcakKe, Pabllo Vittar), Unlock It (feat. Kim Petras & Jay Park), Track 10.

All The Things She Said: “It’s Charli, baby”; “I blame it on your love, every time I fuck it up”; “I can’t escape all the voices and so I turn it up”

With her aptly named second mixtape of 2017, Charli XCX and a shopping list of collaborators and co-producers hit the pop jackpot. Where Number 1 Angel consistently mined a deep vein of hooky electro-pop, Pop 2 throws caution to the wind and brazenly mashes together a dizzying array of styles and influences with mostly spectacular results. Despite this, it hangs together beautifully and gives a glimpse of what’s possible with a group of forward-thinking musicians and producers who are willing to experiment and share the limelight.

Pop 2 is breathlessly urgent and immediate: with instantly memorable hooks, over half of the songs here could easily stand alone as singles. But this isn’t straightforward pop. There’s a restless creative energy underpinning all of it, which speaks of an artist constantly seeking to stretch boundaries and confound expectations. PC Music founder A.G. Cook has co-production credits on all of the tracks here, so it’s unsurprising that most of the songs draw heavily on the hyperactive stuttering beats, bouncy arpeggiated synths and aggressively autotuned vocals beloved of PC Music afficianados. But the record extends well beyond the tropes of a single genre.

Witness early single I Got It, a raunchy anthem to female success and body positivity. It begins firmly in grimy trap territory, with fat, distorted kicks and deft lyrical contributions from Brooke Candy and on-fire Chicago rapper CupcakKe, before effortlessly flipping to an uplifting Euro-house beat for a verse in Portuguese from Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar, then back again. Or the way Delicious meshes gritty downbeat verses with a catchy trance-inflected chorus. It stops entirely half way through Tommy Cash’s echo of Charli’s chorus hook, then pivots 180 and restarts via a couple of atmospheric lyrical pile-ups.

Even in songs which don’t attempt these kinds of genre-defying sonic acrobatics, Charli and her co-writers display an effervescent sense of fun and experimentation. Album stand-out Unlock It sends up vacuous pop culture by deploying a series of stereotypical teen romance tropes which become increasingly hyperbolic, finally glitching out in the hypnotic and addictive chorus:

Rollercoaster ride in the fast lane, Got the roof down, Kiss me hard in the rain…
You’re on my mind, feeling like an astronaut, Watchin' the world all alone, just you and I.
Lock it, lock it, lock it, lock it, got the key can you unlock it

Femmebot, meanwhile, plays with themes of robotic and female servitude, introduced in the effortlessly catchy chorus. What could have been a fairly mediocre concept is turned on its head when the robotic female protagonists assert control:

You’re just my human toy, And I am programmed to search and destroy

The production here is equally stunning, with a standout moment being the digital contortions applied to Mykki Blanco’s vocals at the mid-point, which reach Daniel Lopatin-esque levels of inhuman transcendence.

Elsewhere, Charli and Carly (Rae Jepsen) bring the feels on album opener, Backseat. I defy you not to melt when the chorus kicks in and the repeated 'All alone, all alone, all alone' refrain soars away into infinity. Track 10 — the final track on the mixtape, and the only one without any guest vocalists — displays a similarly angsty and vulnerable side. Despite being driven through layers of autotune and pitchshifting effects, Charli’s vocals are here more emotive and brittle than anywhere else as she reveals her fears and failings in intimate detail:

Every time you get too close I run, I run away
And every time you say the words, I don’t know what to say
Back, back to the beginning
Really wish that I could change
I do, I do

‘I love it when you need me’, she sings in the second verse. All I can think is that pop needs more artists like her: generous, inclusive and fearlessly inventive. Although it came out in the release dead zone at the end of 2017, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t make a few end of year lists in 2018.