CLASSIC REVIEW: Charli XCX, Pop 2
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
In the mid 2010s, British production wizards A.G. Cook and Sophie Xeon, along with like minded affiliates EASYFUN, GFOTY, Danny L Harle and Hannah Diamond, began to build a time machine with the unexpressed purpose of predicting Top 40 trends for the year 3000. They called their label PC Music, and while the sound itself was definitely there, the movement lacked a mainstream muse. Charli XCX was beginning to ramp up her spotlit career with significant feature work for Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop, and original songs for major motion pictures, like “Boom Clap”. She was on the course of performing radio station events like Z100’s Jingleball, doing meet-and-greets at Barnes and Noble, and then fading into obscurity. However, because Charli is the rare pop figure with a deeply independent spirit, her tastes brought her to explore the world of underground music. After linking with PC Music, she immediately began to saturate her catalog with tracks like “Vroom Vroom”, “After The Afterparty” and “Roll With Me” so that she could stop performing her old material entirely. Thus, Charli 2.0 was born.
In an interview with Canadian radio station CBC, listeners could start to pick up on what exactly made Charli and A.G.’s minds align. Her neo-poptimism, love for ‘90s artists like Spice Girls and Britney Spears, as well as her recognition that hip-hop was starting to dominate made her the perfect conduit for this vision that would later become hyperpop. You see, this new genre was not a competition to see who could make the best SOPHIE knock-off track, aka whose voice was the squeakiest and whose drums sounded most like metal (although 100 gecs would take a left-turn with that concept during their era). Hyperpop was, and is still, all about inclusion. There is room for all genres and all genders under this umbrella, and it was no surprise that a label cultivated in part by a prominent trans figure in SOPHIE would start this trend. Although SOPHIE is barely featured on either of Charli’s mixtapes of this era, the blueprints from their collaborative VROOM VROOM EP lay down the framework. While Number 1 Angel got the ball rolling and contains some of the very best Charli XCX material, it’s really Pop 2 that would prove to be her and PC Music’s great achievement. As the main force behind the sound and vibe of Pop 2, A.G. Cook was really able to speed up the time machine and get his vision cemented in modern times. Before Charli arrived, I feel like all PC Music output had this semi-ironic, “this will never work” wink to it, with “Hey QT” being the prime example. While that track bangs to no end, the fake energy drink advertisement all but seems to box it in as a send-up of material gain and product consumption, rather than a full exploration of what pop can and should be. The opener of Pop 2, “Backseat”, feels like a very earnest attempt to supplant mainstream popular music. By all accounts, this is a perfect song. The chorus is simple yet effective, the production continues to shift to match performances, Charli’s singing is on point and Carly Rae Jepsen is given a chance to do what she does best. The genius of this entire record hinges on that last part. Since this is a “mixtape”, the features are brought in not for marketing purposes, but purely because Charli wants to showcase them. By the end of the track, all stems are in full throttle mode, transporting us to an exciting new landscape, concluding with a simple but effective message, “it’s Charli baby”.
While we never got to officially see XCX World because it was shelved, this album fulfills the exact same fix. “Out of My Head” with Tove Lo and ALMA continues the trend of excellent writing, underpinned by a rare SOPHIE beat. Lyrics like “Got me doing all this stupid shit/You fucked me up like this/Secretly, I’m into it, no” paints a picture of Charli succumbing to her own vices and flaws. I love the way the chorus is a double-entendre, and the way the outro goes “need you, need you, need you (out)”, it’s like she is on the fence about this person, but since it’s hyperpop, the feelings look like fireworks. As we saw on her other masterwork how i’m feeling now, XCX and her production crew are nothing if not mood shifters. Just as on that record, this one slows down at the right spots for moments of clarity after all the noise. “Lucky” is deconstructed pop, a term that will become really important when we get to “Track 10”. The very normal hook is the anchor that holds everything down as A.G. swirls choral vocals and hallowed, cavernous ambience around it. The highlight here for me are Charli’s strange, whale-like auto tune vocalizations that seem like a prototype version of what Caroline Polachek mastered on Pang. Speaking of, “Tears” with Polachek combines that prolific singer’s ethereal style with the same hip-hop influences Charli was so fond of at that time. The drum patterns are like a pillowy version of trap, and the two even flow in a way that feels foreign to pop. Like on “Backseat”, Cook really charges it up, letting out a spectrum of hyperpop light out at the very end, concluding the cut in a very undeniably artful way.
In the same way that Blood Orange did with Angel’s Pulse, the “ahh it’s a mixtape, fuck it” attitude is strong on Pop 2. I think she handles this power a little bit more conservatively, bringing in features that mostly complement what she and Cook are…cooking up. Rap features are the exception to that, in that they can sometimes derail songs. “I Got It” mostly gets by unscathed, with CupcakKe being the clear winner, Pablo Vittar bringing something new, and Brooke Candy sucking pretty hard. The beat here is the least dynamic, and truthfully, without CupcakKe, this is a dud. But with her, this track rocks, that's the beauty of Pop 2. “Delicious” is the worst track here without a doubt, and that’s because Tommy Cash has never made anything listenable. The one disadvantage to letting everyone in the door is that once in a while, an untalented person steps up to the mic. Trankfully, “Delicious” still has great production and is an outlier in its awfulness. While her album Charli really sees a dip in overall quality as it nears the end (“I Don’t Wanna Know”, “Official”), this is Pop 2 hits its stride. “Femmebot”, with a star-making performance from oddball Dorian Electra, has possibly my favorite chorus here. Even Mykki Blanco comes through with the heat and the beat adjusts accordingly. Each artist here comes together like a robotic three-headed dragon. I can say the same but even more so for the all-timer Charli track “Unlock It (Lock It) - feat. Kim Petras & Jay Park”. The Life Sim and Cook collab here is so playful and bubbly, and has a tangible momentum to it. Everyone including Jay Park, shine and contribute to the greatness of everything going on. The lines “Caught in the liplock when we pitstop/Cosmic kiss tastes like cherry maraschino/Ride passenger seat, tropical heat/Eyes so red, you can be my Valentino” just really stand out to me as simple yet exceptional pop writing.
To conclude, we get two tracks that definitively prove that Pop 2 is the better Charli mixtape. It has a far better placement of MØ, who fell flat on “3AM (Pull Up)” from Number 1 Angel. On the much more subtle and sexy “Porsche”, Charli is flexing and sharing feelings. “I gave it all so emotional/But you only care, how your money talks”, she sings, trying to have it both. There is also this pervading theme of sound drowning out emotions, which starts on “Backseat” (“I can’t escape all the voices and so I turn it up/I go to parties with strangers so I can figure it out”) and comes full circle hear with a line “Engine drownin’ out the sound, here me coming”. It feels like this tape and hyperpop as a movement has followed suit ever since. There is a simultaneous free expression of and pushing down of emotion that is often in competition with each other, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the stunning closer “Track 10”. As on “Lucky”, the romantic pop chorus is the crux of it all. Even with the SOPHIE-esque blips and ripples, the bombastic A.G. Cook production, the vocal experimentation and everything else that this wonderfully weird track offers, “I blame it on your love, everytime I fuck it up” is put front and center. All around Charli, buildings fall, lightning strikes and glitches are destroying all technology, but her voice continues to persist. This is deconstructed pop at its very best, with artists like Arca more heavily leaning into that with KiCK i. I don’t want to give all credit to Charli for the success of experimental sound in the pop landscape, much of that can be attributed to SOPHIE, A.G. and obviously Arca as I just mentioned. However, I think without people like her and Hannah Diamond really bridging these two worlds, the influence and impact would not have been the same. Pop 2 is a landmark body of work in its ability to appeal to the weirdos and the average pop audience without compromising in either direction.