Is there a pop star working today that has had a stranger trajectory than Charli XCX?
To recap, Charli has been working hard since her excellent debut album, True Romance, which remains her best work to date. Consisting mainly of brilliantly mixed synth-pop songs with razor sharp hooks, it was the kind of album that pop stars looking to break out can only dream of. But alas, it didn’t propel her into the spotlight or perform all that well commercially (not that commercial success is any indicator of quality).
It was her song “I Love It” that she wrote and gave away to Icona Pop that got people acquainted with her name. The song’s success was helped by its use in the HBO show Girls, and a sticky sweet hook that Charli has employed in her music time and time again. Her real “star is born” moment, however, came in the form of two other songs she wrote for other artists. “Boom Clap” was originally pitched to Hillary Duff for her then still in the works comeback album Breathe In. Breathe Out but eventually became the song for The Fault In Our Stars and Charli’s biggest hit as a solo artist). And of course there’s “Fancy,” which she shared with Iggy Azalea and quickly shot to #1 for a record breaking amount of time on the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the best-selling songs of all time, earning Charli her first set of Grammy nominations.
And while Charli has continued writing hits for other artists (like “Same Old Love” Selena Gomez), her recent output as a solo artist has been varied in both sound and quality. Her last proper album Sucker was a hodge-podge of pop gems tacked against some more forgettable music, and the less we talk about “After the After Party” the better off we’ll be. It’s her EP from last year, Vroom Vroom, and this year’s Number 1 Angel, that peel back the curtain and reveal the interesting, versatile and confident artist we saw on that great debut album.
Vroom Vroom was an EP that pushed Charli’s sound into a whole other territory, steering as far from the bratty, punk-pop sound she was going for on Sucker with a whole new sound. With Number 1 Angel, a mixtape that Charli asserts is “just songs that me and AG Cook made in two weeks in LA when I was, like, feeling really depressed,” she continues that trajectory while also dipping her toes into the more traditional waters. Look no further than “3am (Pull Up),” which sounds like it could have been right at home on Vroom Vroom, but features an irresistible hook and accompanying chorus that could have also been found on Sucker. Then there’s “Blame It On You,” which starts off as very mid-tempo before building into an explosive nirvana of synth-pop against a repetitive refrain.
The one, two punch of standouts”Emotional” (which feels like a not-so distant, grown up cousin to “Boom Clap”) and “ILY2” retain the mixtape’s killer production while shifting gears to more serious themes. “Babygirl” featuring Uffie (in her first appearance since 2011) is bouncy, lithe and goes down easier than your favorite drink. And then there’s “Lipgloss,” featuring Cupcakke, a straight up raunch-fest that sees Charli taking a backseat to give her guest all the shine (who happens to share Charli’s talent in wordplay) which is probably for the best. It’s the perfect way to close out the set, and will have you hitting the replay button over and over again.
This might not be on the level of “Nuclear Seasons,” but it’s not exactly a pit-stop on the road to her next album, nor is it just something for the fans to keep them occupied. Number 1 Angel is easily the best body of work she’s put forth since that debut album, full of attitude and personality. From the composition to the songs themselves to her choice in collaborators, it’s clear that Charli meant what she said on “Break the Rules.” She’s carving out her own unique place in the pop landscape that is less concerned with churning out hits and traditional songs like “Boom Clap” and “Fancy,” and more interested in seeing just how much she can get away with. Who knows what her next album will sound like, if it will even sound anything at all like any of the songs on here is a mystery. But one thing’s for sure, is that there’s the potential for some truly excellent pop music in store for us whenever that third album does come around.