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Featuring collaborations with Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, HAIM, and Sky Ferreira.
Booking festival stages and Taylor Swift support slots might be a breeze with a couple of transatlantic smashes in your back pocket. But Charli XCX is a popstar who evolves so quickly, and challenges her creative limits so regularly, that her most accessible work – think the punchy, shout-along hooks of ‘I Love It’ or ‘Boom Clap’ – is simply trite compared to her post-2014 pivot to PC Music’s hyper-futuristic robo-pop.
The conflict between these two opposing creative avenues has defined the last four years of Charli’s career: an agonising yet fruitful chapter of label interference, one scrapped third album, two critically-acclaimed mixtapes and an EP, plus an endless stream of singles.
After seven attempts at landing a hit, one of those singles, the Troye Sivan duet ‘1999’, miraculously climbed to #13 in the UK charts last year. Songs like that fluffy bit of Y2K-nostalgia porn aren’t what make long-gestating third album Charli a triumph. If you look at the popstar’s recent body of work as a hedonistic, orgy-fuelled beach resort – housed within an alien dimension where it rains champagne and snows cocaine – ‘1999’ conveys as much of that fun as an official website. But it’s probably the reason Charli has been released at all.
Because here’s the genius of Charli XCX. So deeply ingrained is her pop know-how that, alongside years of reckless experimentation, she has continued to write enough chart hits – for herself and others, see: song of the summer ‘Señorita’ by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – and rack up enough industry goodwill to sneak the abstruse synth gimmickry of hipster darlings A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and Danny L Harle into the mainstream.
Take ‘Click’, for example. As soon as the aforementioned single’s gentrified house-pop makes its tidy exit, a protracted blast of feverish synth confirms we’re in business-as-unusual mode. Co-starring Kim Petras and eccentric Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, it’s a godless hymn honouring the whips, the gold, and the instant gratification that comes with being a rockstar: ‘Get what I want like “click” / They want a pic like “click”’. The cocky rhymes are propped up by simple, evocative percussion – until Cash starts rapping about Sudoku and hashtags, and the production becomes openly hostile around him. The final 30 seconds is a collection of twisted, nightmarish sounds typically associated with demonic possession, seemingly added for no other reason than for the amusement of scaring the shit out of any Taylor Swift fans picked up from the Reputation Tour. Bewildering moments like these are what make Charli a triumph.
Thankfully, there are plenty of them. The belligerent ‘Cross You Out’ slow-dances to 80s-prom drums and extraterrestrial rumblings. On ‘2099’, Charli backs up her self-anointed avant-garde status with high-tech, and highly-textured, production. Best of the lot is the Missy Elliot-recalling ‘Shake It’ – a four-way battle royale between Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar. Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it. Each of these iterations comes flavoured in a new vocal effect, with the singer mutating into everything from a malfunctioning android to sentient liquid.
Whatever creative lane Charli XCX has navigated over the years, she has never stopped writing inherently catchy hooks. Charli is a world where aggressive futurism coexists with comparatively meek but charming single options like ‘White Mercedes’ and ‘Official’. That alone makes it one of the most important pop records of the 2010s, and – if I may be so bold – the next decade to come.