Five years ago today, as the world hunkered down for the holidays and music critics puffed out their chests over the year-end Top 10s they’d posted earlier in the month, Charli XCX dropped her “Pop 2” mixtape. It was her second mixtape of the year and the third release in her hard-left turn away from the effervescent mainstream pop of “Boom Clap” and her smash singles gifted to Icona Pop (“I Love It”) and Iggy Azalea (“Fancy”) into the more disruptive and discordant strain of pop pioneered by Sophie and PC Music that she’d become enraptured with.
The first releases in that challenging era, the 2016 collaboration with Sophie, “Vroom Vroom,” and the later mixtape “No. 1 Angel,” were intentionally angular, semi-robotic and polarizing for the fans she’d picked up in the years since she first began posting songs to MySpace as a 14-year-old. There’d been reports of conflicts with her label and confusion from her management over the new direction, both of which were apparent in 2016 when she came to the Billboard offices (where I worked at the time) to play some new songs for us: some of which were great, some of which were confusing, none of which sounded like her previous records. Anyone hoping for more of the safely adventurous Robynesque pop we’d come to expect wasn’t getting it, in either sense of the word.
But Charli is a prolific creative, and like many prolific creatives, she seems to get bored quickly. So ironically enough, her reaction lay to all of the above was in the chorus of her biggest hit, “I Love It” — “I don’t care!”
And although “Vroom Vroom” and “No. 1 Angel” have their stans, neither are as fully realized as “Pop 2”: It’s a true fusion of mainstream and hyperpop, of glitter and glitch, and in it are so many elements and so many people who would shape innovative and adventurous pop over the immediately following years.
The collaborators alone illustrate those points: On the one hand are Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo and Caroline Polachek (who’d recently left Chairlift), all of whom had enjoyed massive hit singles that barely scratched the surface of their adventurous musical spirits; and on the other were pop disruptors Kim Petras, Pabllo Vittar, Cupcakke, and Mikki Blanco. Crucially, PC Music founder A.G. Cook is a cowriter and producer of every track, although pop titans Stargate are also cowriters/coproducers of the closing “Track 10” (more on that in a moment).
That dynamic plays out across all of “Pop 2,” often multiple times within a single song. The Jepsen-starring opener, “Backseat,” features one of Charli’s trademark multisyllabic melodies and shimmering synthesizers but also has a beat-heavy bug-out at the end; “Out of My Head,” with Lo, is more of an upbeat bop. The Polacheck collaboration “Tears” lays signature melodies and vocals from both over jarring, ricocheting beats; at the end of Polachek’s verse her voice is autotuned into a wild, prolonged digital shriek that soars and scrapes in the background while Charli sings the keening chorus. “I Got It” is a robotic angular slapback with Brooke Candy, Cupcakke and Pabllo Vittar.
Yet “Pop 2” also features what may be the most beautiful ballad Charli has ever released. “Lucky” is a wistful heartspill with an aching melody that also shows her to be an autotune virtuoso: She glitches her voice on the lyric “I call you, you’ve got no reception/ You’re breaking up” like a bad cellphone connection, and then launches into a wild wordless solo where she twists her voice across multiple octaves, at times sounding like a unhinged flute.
It album concludes with the Stargate collaboration “Track 10,” a song with a stunning melody whose title hints at the bigger future she seemingly knew it would have: Sure enough, it was transformed into “Blame It on Your Love,” her collaboration with Lizzo released two years later on her triumphant 2019 album, “Charli,” which saw the sounds and ideas of “Vroom” and the two mixtapes taken to a logical conclusion. (For more on this era, see Variety’s 2020 interview with Charli and Cook, when they were awarded our Hitmakers Innovator of the Year honor.)
Charli XCX did not invent hyperpop — but by enlisting people from both that burgeoning world and mainstream pop, she created a new, more accessible strain of it that we’ve been hearing play out over the past five years, from the adventurous production in many of today’s pop hits to the ADD-addled pop of 100 Gecs. When their remix album “1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues” dropped just a few months after their galvanizing debut, there was Charli guesting on the first track.
Not surprisingly, Pitchfork immediately saw “Pop 2” for what it was. It’s “not really about Charli XCX, Pop Star Extraordinaire,” Meaghan Garvey wrote in a rare 8.4-scoring review, just three days after the mixtape dropped. “It’s an uninhibited, anti-algorithm vision of what pop music could be.”
Her creative restlessness has continued over the years, first with the palette-cleansing pandemic-therapy “How I’m Feeling Now” — Charli gave herself and Cook the challenge of writing and releasing an album in five weeks, and did — and this year’s ‘80s-channeling “Crash,” which concluded her contract with Warner. Along the way, she continued to prove that she can work on a global smash whenever she likes, with her cowriting role in Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ 2019 anthem “Senorita.”
With the conclusion of her Warner deal, Charli is now a free agent, and conspicuously keeping mum about her next move. Whatever it is, we’re here for it.
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