As soon as you press play on Charli XCX’s new album, you will be greeted with what might as well be her thesis statement: “I go hard, I go fast, and I never look back.”
Those are the opening lines to Charli’s “Next Level Charli,” the first track off of her third studio album, Charli. It may sound like a somewhat typical lyric from a modern Top 40 star — but for the 27-year-old avant-pop savant, it serves as a promise. Charli, although occasionally unwieldy, features the star’s most forward-thinking sound, bringing new meaning to her self-proclaimed title as a pop futurist. Picking up where the critically acclaimed Pop 2 mixtape left off, Charli takes her sonic risks to the next level.
Part of what makes the album so fun to listen to is its purely chaotic nature. Take, for example, two songs toward the back half of the album, “Official” and “Shake It”: the former is a paired-down, minimalistic pop track about falling in love with someone; the latter is an insane, contorted electronic symphony, transitioning from whispered choruses to hard-hitting rap verses from the likes of Big Freedia, Brooke Candy, Cupcakke and even Pabllo Vittar.
Charli offers viewers a closer look at the star’s relationship with PC Music founder A.G. Cook. A trusted creative partner of the singer-songwriter for most of the last half-decade, Cook has helped Charli take her sound and twist it into hyper-experimentation. The influence of PC Music is felt deeply on the new album — songs like “Next Level Charli” and “Silver Cross” bear the label’s signature sounds, with distorted vocal tracks over groaning metallic beats.
The album is also helped by the sheer megawattage of talent that Charli wrangled together: 9 out of the album’s 15 songs feature at least one other artist, with 13 different artists appearing in some form or another across the album. It’s important to note that at least 8 of those collaborators are also queer, serving as yet another example of Charli’s near-constant uplifting of LGBTQ musicians throughout her career.
If you’re a fan of Charli’s earlier, simpler pop sounds, fear not; the star made sure to pepper in a few tracks just for you, like her infectious retrospective “1999” with queer pop hero Troye Sivan. If you’re more interested in the musical mayhem of PC artists like Sophie or Easyfun, then Charli and Troye’s album closer “2099” may be more suited for you, with all the glitching, synthetic production you could ask for.
But Charli excels when it brings both of those worlds together. On early-album highlight “Click,” Charli manages to blend her early pop sensibilities with Cook’s smash-bang production, creating a still-experimental but highly danceable track, assisted by two incredible verses by pop virtuoso Kim Petras and rising Estonian rapper Tommy Cash. “I’m so 2020 with my vision 20/20/ With precision, I’m so legit,” Charli spits on her verse.
Experimentation in pop music is certainly not new, but the brazenness with which Charli XCX wields her artistic expression is a marvel to watch. Even with its flaws, Charli offers artists of the modern age a shining example of what it means to take chances with your music, while still delivering pure pop gold along the way.