For those of us intermittently confused by March Madness, Billboard is running a Should-Be-Bigger Bracket right now for pop stars who are not as famous as their talents merit. By the time you read this, Billboard‘s five judges will have weighed in on the Final Four: Charli XCX versus Tinashe and Vince Staples versus Hey Violet. Even if Charli XCX isn’t the ultimate winner, it’s not difficult to assert that she should be bigger. Charlotte Aitchison could easily be the world’s biggest twenty-four-year-old pop star, but does her job get any more fun if she is? Would she want to be?
Though she was playing raves in Hackney at sixteen (your 2008), the single that connected her to the larger world, before she was signed in the U.K., was “Stay Away,” from 2011. Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, it is a blocky, agile song, pairing the light sulk of the Nineties with the heavy glow of the Eighties. Charli’s asking her lover to “stay away” because she’s “never needed anyone,” which doesn’t seem to have worked. Or maybe it did — she’s ended up in “prison” on her “hands and knees,” and the song’s ecstatic synths and slow lope suggest more “electric blue,” her lover’s color, than pain. Charli was laying out themes she has hung on to right up to her current mixtape, Number 1 Angel, which no matter what it’s called or how it’s promoted plays no different than a short album. Her lovers are gender blind, bad experiences and good experiences are not necessarily categorically different, all genres of pop are available, and hedonism is more real than realism.
The money, and the mission statement, came in 2012 with “I Love It,” which she co-wrote, which became a global smash for Icona Pop, and which sounds no different than a Charli XCX track. The production, by Patrik Berger and Style of Eye, is pure turn-of-the-century Eurostomp, two chords turned from rock to disco with a change of timbre. Form and function are both revving up; after a four-bar intro — short by current pop standards — we hit the verse, which leaps into the chorus without pause: “I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone/I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn/I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/I crashed my car into the bridge.” This is Charli’s sweet spot, yelling and singing at the same time, happy when it burns, happier still when she’s leaving. There is little room in her songs for consequences. Partying is fun. Pretty is fine, but tacky is better.
This would be minor stuff, at best, if Charli XCX weren’t a pop closer of the highest order. When Buckcherry, Blondie, Selena Gomez, James Blunt, and Yasutaka Nakata are all asking for hooks, you’re writing open-source code. For Number 1 Angel, she’s paired up with producers Sophie and AG Cook and Danny L Harle of the PC Music collective, which is a little distracting. PC Music has spent a fair amount of time chopping up the constituent elements of pop and making them shiver in isolation. So: making pop about pop. Except: pop is already about pop, so Number 1 Angel sounds no stranger or more heterodox than anything Charli XCX has already done. It’s just her third rock-solid full-length, depending on your tabulations. In fact, if we’re counting hard, this ten-track collection is perfect. It’s hard to imagine how any forthcoming “official” album is going to be any better.
The first track, “Dreamer,” is fabulous mulch, pulled off with the help of rapping singers Raye and Starrah. The bass oofs and boofs along, while all three channel the warbling triplets of Atlanta. The studio communal dictionary seems to have been printed in 1993 and updated every year since: “Beamer,” “whip,” “skrrt,” “dip,” “Lambo,” “baggy.” “Babygirl” re-creates the Nu Shooz feeling sparkle for sparkle, with Uffie adding a hologram of Mel C’s rapping. “Drugs” is about drugs, and the track suggests reduced motor function simply by introducing something minimal and dark into Charli’s bright-red maximalism. On “Lipgloss,” Charli’s universe is less heteronormative than ever. Says? CupcakKe in a guest verse: “Call again when you need somethin’ to eat/So I could open my legs, bon appétit, let’s get it.”
What makes Charli’s work such good pop is what makes her a hard sell as a pop star. She is omnivorous at every turn. When she is singing, someone is close to hand with a rap, which turns on a West Indian dance phrase, but not the one currently on the charts. When she advocates blitzkrieg partying, she doesn’t complain about being done wrong. She is a stoic hedonist, a strange combination, and low on persona. She is a doer. Stars need to do a great deal of explicit reflection to pull in the obsessive types who need pronouns to hash out. Charli XCX is enjoying herself too much to provide a surface for ideation. When others are strategizing their squad goals, Charli’s either writing or at the club. She’s not worried about who is number 2, 3, or 4. That’s for others to sort out.