Charli XCX’s new record is sharp, sexy, littered with fascinating details, daring lyrics and a host of exciting featured stars. East London publicist Jack Cullen writes about the bougie Bishop’s Stortford popstar’s latest game-changing release Pop 2…
As she pointed out on Twitter, Charli XCX isn’t even sure if releasing albums is a thing anymore. The internet has been here 20 years and Charli is a digital native. She’s holding up the music industry like it’s a greening Hovis loaf in a Camden flatshare like “Guys, does anyone want this? Because I’m gonna put it in the bin otherwise. I’ll get us a Deliveroo”
But don’t be fooled by the absence of billboards or major release trimmings, like Number 1 Angel before it, Pop 2 boasts some killer tracks from pop’s rogue princess…
The album – or ‘mixtape’ as we must call it for creative or possibly bureaucratic reasons – just appeared mid-horizon last week like a Mario Kart weapon box. A neon-pastel question mark spinning into our YouTube sidebars and smashing into a circling array of purple turtles, the consequences unknown, wide-ranging and probably addictive. Since the mainstream never acknowledged her last mixtape, as fans we’re are enjoying this strange digital private party. Charli has brought surprise back to pop, her creative output feels generous and we’re here for it, as kids like to say these days.
It was Estonian collaborator Tommy Cash who came up with the name Pop 2 and it fits perfectly into producer A.G. Cool and Charli’s game of pastiching nineties/noughties pop culture. Pop 2 sounds like an old CD compilation and is perhaps also a comment on the commercial distribution of pop – something that Charli is redefining. I like how while the press are struggling to index her music – is this her sixth album, or fourth mixtape? – she’s adding further numerical confusion and calling this record Pop 2! It also sounds like the sort of thing you might find in a girl racer’s glovebox, and Charli LOVES cars.
Pop 2 opens with Backseat, a Carly Rae Jepsen duet with strained, melancholy effects that push the two ladies around geometrically, as if against their own will slightly, the resulting sound – like they’re sharing a laborious Sunday morning shift in an Argos’ warehouse, driving fork-lifters stacked high with out-of-stock emotions. Despite having enjoyed colossal hits, both singers are unfairly classed as underground or alt figures, probably because they don’t play with the press much, or get themselves into stupid feuds or showmances.
Out of My Head with its zesty, layered, tribal vocals is fantastic once it gets going. It sounds like… being out of your head! And Charli’s lead vocal is right up there with peak Gwen Stefani and prime Debbie Harry, albeit a bit computer tweaked, as desired. It’s a shame it’s over just as it starts to get really good with the full-force of A.G. Cook’s overbearing gothic synths.
Unlock It is a total pop gem that is so good it’s annoying when this legal high ends, it could easily hold another minute or two of drive time, but for all Charli’s proclaimed love of fast cars, some of the tracks on Pop 2 are over while you’re still waiting at the lights. Unlock It does treat us to a dreamy double-ending though, like Drugs on Number 1 Angel, a sort of blank credits roll as the song thanks itself. Unlock It is a track Charli should feel really proud of, I hope it finds a firm place in her live show, and I think Ciara should cover it.
Porsche isn’t quite the petrol-head anthem you might have hoped for, more a mechanical lullaby, like the soundtrack to an iPhone game in which you have to drag-drop build a Porsche. But the track’s strange hypnotic introspection is kooky in a – dare I say it – Nicola Roberts kind of way?
Charli is the best possible ambassador for PC Music, the North London electro label with whom she’s had this mad, amazing 2017 affair. In return for A.G. Cook’s slick sugary production, Charli brings her song-writing skills, her voice and her audience. Above all, the two artists are having lots of fun – and fun is a big reason why kids turn to Charli. Fans can sense how fun she is, through her music and through her social media, in the same way that it’s glaringly obvious how Beyonce has one or two private concerns, or that Taylor Swift is ever so slightly tetchy.
Whereas Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night and Taylor Swift’s 22 sound agonizingly staged, Charli’s love of going out is genuine. In fact, the day she recorded Pop 2 I bumped into her at Five Miles in Tottenham – she had taken a studio break to have a night out, and then back to the studio! Here in London, many people on the scene have Charli stories because she was always out! DJ’ing at Douchebag, jumping around Camden, one friend remembers her performing in a squatted theatre with DJ Gaff E ten years ago – so Charli would have been fifteen!
Not only does Charli get PC Music’s satirical edge, but she germinates it. She’s adopted a lush and LOLZ habit of vocally tagging her tracks with “eh-eh-XCX”, à la Ashanti circa 2001. This joke from Number 1 Angel is an irrepressible virus on Pop 2. On Delicious, the joke even self-references as Tommy Cash spills in with a stoned-sounding broken version of it. A brilliant track that has Charli groaning “I always think about you when I’m high – I want to hear your whisper on the telephone”. Mobile phones are never very far away in PC Music (see GFOTY’S Friday Night), and on this track Tommy Cash even phones Charli, his ringtone is – of course – Boom Clap.
Another major theme of PC Music is to indulge in pop clichés, half-exposing their silliness, and Charli has been doing this for a while. On her still unreleased single Bounce (which startlingly she performed on the Jimmy Kimmel show) she employs the gaudy pop device of name-dropping big cities “If you’re from New York.. if you’re from London” etc but then erratically adds in “If you’re in Ghana!”. In the same vein on Bounce, she later raps “If you’re in the club… if you’re in the car… or if you’re in the sauna”. Pop 2 is riddled with these little pop jokes. On one track her first note is pitched exactly like the piercing start of Wannabe, this can’t be a coincidence. Her references to cars never quite reach Grace Jones levels of innuendo but they’re just enough to work as absurdist double-entendres if you want them to.
Charli’s explicit sexual politics feels very real “You fucked me up like this – secretly I’m kind of into it though” she sings on Out Of My Head. It’s her own, honest, scary spin on the timeworn girly pop story of “He’s so bad, but he feels so good”. While Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Beyonce and the like have all had big singles that push a grandiose notion of “He hurt me – but look at me now, it made me so strong”, as if heartbreak can be fixed with the right gym routine, Charli isn’t so easily fooled. She’s grittier. She doesn’t patronise girls with fridge magnet philosophy. As she enters womanhood more with each release her doubts about love seem to widen, her hedonism deepens, and this is cool and refreshing. On the closing track of Pop 2 her parting words – “I blame it on your love, every time I fuck it up, I can’t help it – I can’t stop”. We hear you Charli!
The multitude of collaborations are a big definitive feature of Pop 2. The record is thick and fast with them and while I wish there was some more pure Charli, her eye for a collaboration is sharp and on the money. None of this #SquadGoals bull with Burberry models parading about. Charli is on the pulse and she’s global. Pop 2 celebrates underground artists who are LGBT and BAME too without feeling righteous. On her Insta stories this summer we saw her literally rowing across a Norwegian lake to visit Alma’s studio. These are Charli’s likeminded music mates and they’re all bloody brilliant. Tommy Cash is an inspired choice and his voice compliments Charli’s in the way that Bjork’s voice always works better with someone barmy like Anohni. Pabllo Vitar is a deft choice too, super cool – a good singer and the most followed drag queen on earth (she has more followers than RuPaul) – this is Charli’s underground Despacito moment. And then A.G. Cook presides over the whole thing, and so we also see the emblems of his former muses shine through, particularly GFOTY – one of Charli’s important but uncited influences.
Teaming up with these artists is a savvy way to cross-pollinate on Spotify. Boys – another orphan track of hers from 2017 – is her second most watched video and this has clearly been helped along by its abundance of guest stars AKA fellow promoters. She’s not completely Machiavellian like this, but nor is she stupid.
Pop 2 isn’t quite as good as Number 1 Angel. A bit like Gwen’s Sweet Escape, or Kelis’s Kelis Was Here, there are significant tracks, experimental treasures and moments of brilliance and I love it all. But it had a hard act to follow and the big budget wasn’t behind it so the ideas can’t really set sail across the mainstream, which is where a pop song becomes truly activated I think.
Charli knows she could write songs like Hey Ya or Get Lucky – but what would be her reward? Having to get up early and sing them on every chat show on earth? As for the money, it can wait. She’s got enough for a taxi, a Red Bull and some french fries. And maybe writing songs for other people better suits her hungover lifestyle, for now? She’s only 25, and this might be her quarter-life crisis, but I don’t think there are much grounds for concern and the creative fruits from some of these conflicts is brilliant.
Pop2 leaves us with Track 10, a proper PC Music banger with fully-blown Ketamine cascades and ecstatic Jigglypuffs, transcending into over-the-top harps and then post-coital shame. Can’t wait to annoy Mum with it on Christmas morning – it’s Charli baby!
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackcullenuk
Photo: Charlotte Rutherford