It’s December 2017 and somewhere, the highly anticipated third album from Charli XCX is waiting to be unleashed. The struggles with her label are no secret and despite the full-length being held hostage, she’s managed to release two mixtapes.
Some suspect this is a move on her labels part to deliver the stranger, abrasive, non-commercial music to her fans; whilst banking on a fully fledged, commercialised pop album. Either way, the journey to XCX 3 has been tumultuous, so for Charli to deliver both Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 in the same year, is mind-blowing.
When the news of Pop 2 broke, I was super excited and anxious. The excitement bore from knowing that Charli understands pop music like no other and because of that, she’s mastered her craft. The anxiety, however, was because I wasn’t sure if just like lightning, she couldn’t strike twice with such force and splendour. Thankfully, Charli’s delivered a high octane party that encapsulates the highs and lows of a partying lifestyle; backboned by youth, fortune and fame.
Pop 2 shares similar qualities with its predecessor, as it explores sensuality and sexiness; combined with an untamed wildness. Every time you listen to an XCX song, you’re reminded that there isn’t anyone else like her and Pop 2 reaffirms that. This project blows all her competitors for the pop crown out of the water.
So, where do we start? Well, this slice of pop heaven begins with a mechanical, mercurial number, “Backseat”. It features another pop favourite, Carly Rae Jepsen, who delivers an emotionally stirring feature. The songwriting on this track is pop perfection, from the melodies to the lyrical combinations.
Evocative lines such as “My fingers run through his hair / I’m grippin’ at regrets / I put my mouth on his lips to taste“, express the track’s wounded, heart wrenching nature. Everything comes together to form a downtempo, musical rollercoaster.
The sheer emotion is hard-hitting musical bliss. The song’s expressive nature isn’t limited to the lyricism either. Sonically, it’s a tortured affair, aligning with the relatable lyrics. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting an introduction this good and I wasn’t prepared for what came next.
“Out of My Head” features another pop heavyweight, Tove Lo and an upcoming starlet, Alma. The raucous darkness continues to brew and stir with lines such as “Pills and potions and terrible things / Heart on the floor when the telephone rings“.
The way the three singers come together to create a cohesive, spine-tingling banger is enviable. Their chemistry brings the song to life. When you mix the troublesome trio with the mutated club-ready beat, you’ve got a chart-topper on your hands. The instrumental contorts and twists, pops and squeals all at once; amongst a flurry of keys and boom-claps. It’s trippy as f**k.
After the more conventional introduction (in terms of song structure), Pop 2 begins to go deeper into the rabbit hole. The “Lucky” instrumental echoes Kanye West’s “Wolves”. The ethereal and distorted instrumental is juxtaposed by a harsh, tug on the heart strings vocal performance.
Whilst the heavy autotune can sting, the overbearing sadness of the track is matched by the heaven meets hell atmosphere. “Lucky” is a PC Music birthed ballad and its sheer aggressive anti-pop soundscape embodies the fearlessness of the artist herself.
The quirky abrasion continues with the powerhouse that is “Tears”. Its skeleton is built up of industrial synths, machine-gun drums and an intermittent screech. Above it all, rides Caroline Polachek’s soaring vocals, which act as a contrast compared to Charli’s pained swagger.
Ultimately, it ends up being one of the heavier tracks, both in sound and substance. Toward the end, twinkling synths come scattering in; being met by warped vocals, which rounds off the track in a mind-bending way.
Pop 2 never slows down and after being rained upon with “Tears”, one of Charli’s most experimental and strongest tracks enters the ring. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you, “I Got It”. Not only is this track sonically insane, it has some of the best melodies and features on the whole project.
Its chorus sounds like a malfunctioning robot choking on its wires, as the vocals are distorted and contorted beyond recognition. Whilst the vocals twist, turn and convulse, the beat itself evolves throughout the runtime, encompassing numerous sounds.
It’s a production masterclass as the track captures various sounds, giving the impression that it’s a combination of multiple songs merged into one. However, it never sounds jarring. Each beat switch and tempo change is effortless, creating some of the best musical moments I’ve ever heard. The track’s ending is a hardcore, whips and chains, ground-stomping curtain call.
It isn’t just the production wizardry that makes “I Got It” a winner, it’s the features too. The Cupcakke and Pabllo Vittar features are part of the winning formula. Cupcakke delivers her verse with a killer instinct, that’s clearly unmatched. Each word she spits, hits like a hammer to the skull. Whereas Vittar delivers magnetic vocals atop space-age synths, transporting the song into another dimension completely.
Once I picked my jaw up off the ground, it wasn’t long before the next beatdown. This time by “Delicious”. Charli strikes gold once again with an absolutely monolithic sex-fuelled jam. Its instrumental follows the “I Got It” formula of switching up the soundscape. You’ll experience dark alt-pop, gargling bass and cascading Ibiza stylised synths. The musical backdrop and vocals combine to create a fully realised and engrossing bop.
Charli’s delivery is sultry, which sets the mood perfectly. The only slight against the track is the quality of the feature given by Tommy Cash. Whilst his flow is great, his lyrical content leaves a lot to be desired. If it wasn’t for his ability to ride the beat in an ice cold way, it’d detract from the track’s sexual, hot and steamy nature.
“Delicious” is crazy from start to finish and the cherry on the top is Charli switching from a sexually charged panther to buoyant arrogance. She spits some bars towards the end and it works. Which begs the question, when is the rap album droppin’?
This project is one of the best pop albums of the decade because of its quality and artistry. Charli’s willingness and ability to push the boundaries of pop music is commendable. What people have to realise is she isn’t your typical pop star, if anything she’s atypical.
Pop 2 demonstrates her strengths in such a way that it’s hard to deny that she’s anything but a star. She has a knack for melodies and isn’t afraid to be creative. Even if that means creating some truly eye-bursting musical concoctions.
Her only weakness is picking some duds for features. Take Brooke Candy as an example. Her feature is ineffective and is rendered useless compared to her counterparts. The biggest offender is Jay Park with one of the most out of place verses I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing. It’s poor. Despite a few awry features, Pop 2 is a resounding success. It surpasses the hype and becomes a must listen for any music lover.
Pop 2 is a futuristic disco that’s got a heart of gold, glitter and diamonds. It breathes bass and bleeds uppers and downers. It’s the sound of the times, whilst coming from a distant future. Charli XCX, the queen of future-pop has once again delivered a body of work that’s both superb and transformative.
Purchase Charli XCX’s Pop 2 on iTunes here.
Words by Jake Gould