Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pop 2 | Charli XCX

Much like a mullet, there are two distinct sides to pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX. In the front, she's business-friendly, safely rebellious, and still somewhat commercially viable, having delivered two proper albums and a drip-feed of commercial pop singles. In the back, however, she's a polarizing party-igniter. Upon colliding with the PC Music songwriting and producing collective a few years back, she burrowed deep into the disjointed synthpop renaissance – the grounds in which her Vroom Vroom extended play and both of her 2017 mixtapes were planted. The second of those mixtapes, Pop 2, is a robotic, future-is-female collaborative that takes most everything we know about pop music and chucks it out the window of speeding car.

Pop 2 is what most people over 35 would say isn't qualified to be classified as music, but what most everybody else would say should be pop music's eventual final form. A genetic mutation of commercial pop's DNA, the mixtape is a hyperactive, barely human circus of dysfunctional melodies, sputtering repetition, and stomping beats. She and her collaborators – from Carly Rae Jepsen to CupcakKe – are digitized into cyborgs; rippling with Auto-Tune, their voices are wired right into the mixtape's overproduced hard drive. Jepsen's contribution, "Backseat," opens the album with a swirling melody line, while CupcakKe joins Charli, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar for the killer "I Got It."

It's moments like when Charli gulps her way through the words "I got it" 80 times over or when Caroline Polachek's voice is pitched to the tone of a dog whistle ("Tears") that Pop 2 can prove grating under the right conditions. After all, it never stops; barreling through off-kilter bangers like "Femmebot" and "Unlock It," the electric set refuses to rest until its finale, "Track 10," when Charli's synthesized voice leads itself through devastated lyrics and into a pit of directionless modem frizzles. Nevertheless, the mixtape is an assertive, unapologetic piece of pop – and after years of Charli's hopscotching between sounds and daydreaming about even more, Pop 2 sees her find soundscapes that fit her brash attitude and punchy voice best.

Her end game has always been a moving target, although it's still hard to believe that a strangely orchestrated Rita Ora collaboration was ever a part of her master plan. (Yes, front-side-of-the-mullet Charli, we all still remember that... vaguely.) But her stint with PC Music is the longest lasting and most fitting phase of her career, even if it does operate with secondary importance behind her major-label commercial work. It's a strange business plan, but it works: Her finger is on the pulse of pop's leading edge, and her household name acts as the vehicle to intoxicate pop audiences with the avant-garde product. She confronts commercial pop's boundaries, running wild with all that pop music can be in the digital age. 

Pop 2 is available now under Atlantic Records.

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