Over the past few years, Charli XCX has been a riveting act to follow. It started with her teaming up with the alt-pop label PC Music for her EP, Vroom Vroom in early 2016, veering away from her straightforward and routine full-length, Sucker. The move introduced a fresh sound totally foreign to what was previously being offered in mainstream pop. She melded the strengths of what PC Music had to offer and what she, herself, had to give — creating something which turned out to be a meaningful marriage. Her lush, iconic lyrics and vocals over PC Music’s jarring, sweet-and-sour production gained her a slew of new fans championing her innovation.
Prior to XCX, PC Music producers hadn’t really been given the proper spotlight to exemplify what they could do within the pop realm. They’d release songs on Soundcloud where they had a couple of hits (like “Hey QT“) that made their way to success outside of the PC Music fanbase, but they were mostly circulating outside of the mainstream (albeit, with an online fanbase that would essentially equate to Ride or Die’s). XCX was really the first “big” musician to recognize their brilliance and bring their futuristic aesthetic to the forefront of her music.
Cut to 2017 and Charli’s newest full length album (which fans gingerly refer to as XCX3) is still postponed, but in the meantime she put out a mixtape, Number 1 Angel, with PC Music’s founder, A.G. Cook almost exclusively lead producing. Now, to cap off the end of the year, she’s released yet another mixtape, Pop 2, again lead produced by Cook.
The album starts with “Backseat” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen and goes off with her signature ambiguously potent lyricism. “I go to parties with strangers so I can figure it out / run through a city at midnight so I can feel like a star / I want it all even if it’s fake.” The majority of the track follows Charli and Carly as they croon an electric and hollow vocal line harmonizing “alone, alone, alone, alone” layered over Cook’s and EASYFUN’s (one of the more underrated and underutilized artists of PC’s roster) rich synth-lines.
A true trait of an XCX track is that we never really know if Charli’s words are surface or sincere. “Lucky” is a sparse, hymnal track which once again ends on a vocal riff of Charli singing “all alone, all alone” before improvising a surprising and emotional riff of auto-tuned whistle notes. She has a gift of being able to translate lyrics that could be entirely aloof into something powerful and meaty, a skill that feels especially relevant in a digital-age.
As expected with any Caroline Polachek track, “Tears” is interesting and one of the more challenging tracks on the album. It takes a few listens to fully digest and appreciate everything that’s happening. Caroline’s screeching underlines almost the entirety of the chorus. Once again, the track is built off a hook “Tears are rollin’ down my face, tears are rollin’ down my face.” The outro on “Tears” is a gorgeous, soft exhale — especially after the abrasion of the rest of the track.
It’s nice to think of PC Music’s challenging production like warhead candy. It’s so sour and tart that you almost can’t handle it — but it can be equally as satisfying to take in.
“I Got It” is pulled from an unreleased album that Charli and Cook wrote in one day, and the resulting mania of that experiment is palpable in the disorder of this banger. The reward comes up right after the bridge in a full on Cook ending with Charli repeating “I got it” over the hardest fucking beat of 2017.
“Femmebot” is another unreleased Cook track that was debuted over a year ago — but it gets the needed revamp with Charli’s vocals and an apt verse from Mykki Blanco. (Interestingly, Mykki denied Charli a collab — 4:11 here — a few years ago.)
“Delicious” is structurally one of the most fun tracks on the album (and it’s even more great if you don’t pay too close of attention to Tommy Cash’s lyrics). Following Cash’s verse is when things start to get really interesting with Charli’s vocals sounding like they are going off the rails while somehow making a rapped verse with uneven bars work seamlessly.
“Unlock It” is a perfect introduction for someone who is unfamiliar with PC Music’s work. The dreamy, bubblegum synth-line over words that sound like they came out of a pop-hook-generator turned up to 100. “Rollercoaster ride in the fast lane / Got the roof down / Kiss me hard in the pourin’ rain / Yeah, I can see it in your eyes / Know you feel the same / Million dollar babe / Trippin’ on it, like propane.” This track has the perfect accessibility for mainstream and PC-production to converge.
“Track 10” closes the album with a crazy, electric remix. Weaving in the “Lucky” gospel into the backdrop, Cook builds a sugary-sweet rollercoaster almost solely out of one lyric. The unforeseen melodies and careless delivery on this album is one of the most titilating aspects, and the bridge on this track is a shining example. “Sorry, I blame it on your love, yeah” Charli delivers out of left-field before fizzling the vocals out into a glitchy breakdown.
XCX’s universe is a lonesome digital candy-coated neon VR penthouse, and that’s what makes Pop 2 a smashing success in 2017. Its surface is satisfying and shiny, but there’s also a deeper reflection that’s visible with a bit of effort.