Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review: Charli • Charli XCX

When mainstream audiences would have considered Charli XCX at the pinnacle of her career earlier this decade, she was nowhere near it. At the height of her American commercial success, she was in the footnotes of other artists’ overnight hits – she was on the hook of Iggy Azalea’s "Fancy" and blended into the anonymous shouts in Icona Pop’s "I Love It." And in capitalizing on the momentum, she seemed bored with her own sophomore major-label record Sucker, the watered-down pop-rock hybrid that spawned adult contemporary favorite "Boom Clap." In fact, she expressed her frustrations with the industry, and in press for the record, she claimed to have already abandoned it for a rebellious pure punk record that never broke daylight.

After entering popular consciousness, Charli played a double agent for the next several years. Traditionally serviceable singles – "Boys," "After the Afterparty" – trickled out to maintain Charli’s accessible appeal, meant to support a now-canceled record. In a secondary online life, however, she attracted a niche cult following by way of experimental PC Music-endorsed mixtapes and extended play. "Vroom Vroom" can conjure a gaggle of screaming gays from miles away, and her Pop 2 mixtape grabbed most counterculture (also see: elitist) pop fans by the throat. Most importantly, Charli XCX seemed genuinely happy as a crowning jewel of PC Music, a collective of producers, singers and songwriters with a mission to define an ambitious derailment for pop music.

Charli, her first studio record in five years, flourishes upon her mixtapes’ collaborative spirit and cockeyed robotic inspiration. "Turn the volume up in the party, put your hands up and dance. Bump, bump in the rave. Go forever and ever," she commands on "Next Level Charli," and from there, the record's mission is set into motion: To make her listeners jump to glitched-out electronics and the heaviest dance beats she could find. (When she returns to rap-singing on pure party tracks "Click" and "Shake It," she fulfills that mission easily.) She pushes herself into the album's wiring by playing AutoTune like the master of the world's most misunderstood instrument, utilizing it as an integral matter of texture rather than a crutch to compensate for vocal inability.

Nothing if not self-aware, Charli has pulled her collaborators from a pool of left-of-center musicians from her class, all of whom rose to fame alongside her earlier this decade. Front-loading this album with its most assertive moments, the collaborative efforts all match their guests' palettes and bring out the wildest in Charli. A moody Sky Ferreira, fellow elusive album procrastinator, melds well into the industrial environment that grinds below "Cross You Out." When the women of Haim enter the stage, Charli vibes out a bit on "Warm," a hazy cut with a subdued tropical underbelly. However, the electricity between Charli and Christine and the Queens may be the most evident on the record as they spit sparks across summertime anthem "Gone."

As Charli crests the record's halfway mark, she begins to go it alone on slow burners that we have been conditioned not to expect from her. Ratcheting down her pop extremism, they're more sufficient than successful: While "I Don't Wanna Know" makes the most of a roomy downbeat and familiar vintage glow, "White Mercedes" listens more like a collection of upcycled fragments from any given Julia Michaels writing session. At moments like "White Mercedes," it becomes clear that although Charli flexes its aggressive production plenty, it's also a major label release – and sometimes, it can too evidently split the difference between its interests. What was the stellar finale to Pop 2 is remixed into a build-drop-repeat Stargate club bumper and slapped with a lukewarm Lizzo feature here, and "1999" with Troye Sivan is nostalgia-soaked fun at best and an out-of-place novelty at worst.

How we feel about Charli is irrelevant to its creator: "CHARLI IS A 5 STAR ALBUM AND I’M A SUPERNOVA," she tweeted in all caps, certified Cher style. As someone who could both curate a vibrant electronic carnival like this record and write a number-one song for America's favorite manufactured couple who kiss in the strangest possible fashion in the same year, she is probably more qualified than any of us to dish out a title like supernova. Although she will surely continue to peak over the hedges into the mainstream's tabloid wasteland, Charli has provided concrete evidence that she belongs in the absurd musical realm she birthed with Pop 2. When Charli revs into overdrive on her namesake record, the payoff is a potent hit to senses – even if those moments are fragmented with some occasional meandering that kicks her into neutral.

Charli is available now under Atlantic Records.

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