Columns, Opinion, Reviews

SideTracked: Past, Present, Future – The Next Level of Pop Music

Charli – Charli XCX

I’m a proud “poptimist.” There is a huge amount of artistic merit in the work so many pop artists put out, and depriving yourself of those releases because of a fairly meaningless label makes no sense. That being said, pop music is also the genre I’m most critical of. What I look for in my pop music is authenticity and innovation, both of which Charli XCX’s new album “Charli” has in spades.

I’ve liked but not loved a number of her previous works. Her “Pop 2” mixtape is certainly a solid project, but I didn’t see it as the reinvention of pop music hardcore fans seemed to. “Backseat,” “Femmebot” and “Track 10” are phenomenal, but the rest of the tape is pretty far from spectacular. 

“Charli,” however, is a delight from front to back. Every feature, every hook, every bouncy bubblegum bass line on this record brings something to the table. 

The opening track, “Next Level Charli,” is exactly what the title implies. This is a new standard for Charli. This is her at her best, most fun and most genuine. She describes the song as an anthem for her fans (“Angels” as she calls them), and it’s not hard to see why. Dancing, drugs, blasting music in a Prius; a clearer picture of Charli XCX’s vision has never been painted. The song might feel insubstantial, frivolous, even vapid if it weren’t so damn fun. And even if the song isn’t traveling too far outside the box lyrically, A.G. Cook’s production certainly is. 

Cook executive produced “Charli” and is the founder of the PC Music label, which has been at the cutting edge of pop music since it was founded in 2013. The label is known for exaggerating pop until it becomes almost surreal. Cook in particular has an ear for what makes pop music tick, and what he can do to subvert his audience’s expectations. “Charli” is informed and influenced by the sounds of ‘80s synth pop, ‘90s boy bands, and 2000s dance pop, but in a way that still feels decidedly now.

The record’s second track, “Gone,” is the highlight of the record. The “I feel so unstable…” pre-chorus is the most Weeknd hook the artist never wrote. Christine & the Queens’ feature here is the best on the album, and the competition is fierce. CupcakKe, Lizzo, Kim Petras; they all deliver because they always do. The remarkable part, however, is how “Charli” manages to pull the best out of musicians like Troye Sivan and Tommy Cash, who I would normally dread seeing in the features list.

“1999” is another hit, and the theme of nostalgia for an era you were too young to fully experience is one I can really sympathize with. When the world feels like it’s on the edge of disaster, getting lost in the ‘90s does seem rather attractive. The track is supplemented by the album’s closer, “2099,” which is eerie, dystopian and lyrically focuses on the contradiction at the heart of Charli XCX’s music: She is a pop star with no desire to cave in to commercialism.

I could gush on and on about almost every moment of “Charli.” From the glitched-out breakdown at the end of “Click,” which features production from St. Louis native and 100 Gecs member Dylan Brady, to the absurd future bass anthem “Shake It” featuring bounce queen Big Freedia and a slew of others. Every song here earns its keep, and the only issue I have with them is with the order they’re presented.

“Blame It On Your Love” is one of the most fun, uplifting moments on the record, and “Shake It” is a crazy, raunchy romp. But between these two songs are four of the more low-key and emotional tracks, which is a bit of a strange transition. It has the effect of making the second half of the record drag slightly, even if each of the songs are great in their own right.

When I gave Lana Del Rey’s last record a score in the low 9s, I assumed it would be my pop record of the year. I was wrong. “Charli” is everything I wanted out of “Pop 2,” and so much more. It delivers the syrupy sweet sound I’m not ashamed to admit I love, while synthesizing the past, present and future of pop into something all its own. It’s genuine, innovative and, most importantly, it never stops being fun.

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