For Charli XCX’s legion of super-stans, June 13th 2019 will forever be remembered as a day most of us never imagined would come, as she announced the release of her third, self-titled album featuring an impressive collection of collaborators who by this point have become her close friends. It’s safe to say the road to Charli did not run smooth, as following the release of her 2017 mixtape Number 1 Angel, the majority of what would have been her third studio album was leaked online and later scrapped altogether. It’s not something Charli has discussed too often, instead focusing on the string of hugely successful singles - including the Troye Sivan-assisted “1999”, “Blame It On Your Love”, an updated version of Pop 2’s Track 10 featuring Lizzo, and “Gone”, a collaboration with French singer-songwriter Christine and the Queens – which gave fans a taste of what to expect from her self-titled effort. However, it’s clearly still a sore spot for the star, as she revealed in a recent interview with Highsnobiety. “It was so out of my hands because I felt like my personal property had been stolen, and taken. And I felt taken advantage of, and I felt like I was completely out of control. I didn’t even have a choice. I didn’t make the choice. The choice was made for me by the people who hacked me. It’s really upsetting and scary and I didn’t feel safe,” she said. Perhaps it was for the best though, as she poured all her emotions into a second mixtape, Pop 2, and supported Taylor Swift on a world tour. Still, the best was yet to come, as Charli relaxed into her role as pop’s brightest star and gave us her most personal body of work to date.
It was the release of second single “Gone” which signalled a change in Charli’s approach to song-writing. Having cemented her status as queen of the rave with bops like her breakout hit “I Love It” – which she gave to Icona Pop, propelling them straight up the charts in Europe and the US – and fan favourites including “Girls Night Out”, “Focus” and “No Angel”, the track saw Charli and Chris open up about their social anxiety, perfectly encapsulating that moment at a party or in a crowded nightclub where you suddenly feel everyone’s eyes on you and a growing sense of paranoia that they secretly hate you, culminating in a swift exit and a harrowing Uber ride home. But where there’s pain there’s also pleasure, and Charli best summed this up herself, described the track as a “huge release of energy” that makes her feel truly “euphoric and alive”, something all great pop music should do. Album opener “Next Level Charli” reminds listeners that partying is still an integral part of Charli’s personal brand. Think of it as a manifesto of sorts, paying homage to the themes that have become familiar in her song-writing over the years. With plenty of references to fast cars, staying out until the early hours and a sample of A.G. Cook’s 2015 track “Big Bratt”, it’s Classic Charli (baby). She also makes references to her iconic track “Vroom Vroom” and “Pink and Blue”, a collaboration with Hannah Diamond, another PC Music star cultivating an ever-growing fan base thanks to her work with Charli back in 2016. She keeps the party going with “Shake It”, once again teaming up with Brooke Candy, Pabllo Vittar and CupcakKe, along with bounce pioneer Big Freedia. The joy of this track lies in both Charli’s ability to take a backseat and let her collaborators take centre stage, and A.G. Cook’s weird and wonderful production. Combining the often abrasive, robotic sounds of Charli’s Vroom Vroom EP with a simple synth-driven beat cements the track as a house party classic in the making. Another song which sits perfectly at the intersection between pop hits past and present is “2099”, Charli’s second collaboration with Troye Sivan. Think of it as the cooler older sister of 1999; if this track was a person, she’d be sneaking you into these parties and dive bars with her fake ID.
Though Charli’s blazing a trail as pop’s most innovative creator and collaborator, the influence of mainstream stars such as Taylor Swift and Julia Michaels have clearly made an impression on her. Take “White Mercedes” for example, the closest Charli will probably ever come to a ballad. The opening notes are a dead ringer for Michaels’ wildly successful track “Issues” but in true XCX fashion, they soon give way to a combination of stadium-ready 80s synths and a string orchestra; a combination that few of her peers would struggle to pull off. Lyrically it’s Charli at her most vulnerable as she declares that “the best damn part of me was always you” and prays for a future in which she’ll “pull through and be good enough” for her lover. So what’s brought on this sudden shift in perspective? “I’ve just realized it’s okay to not feel good all the time”, she told Highsnobiety. “It’s okay to be human. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be strong all the time. It doesn’t make you a better person. It just makes you human if you’re vulnerable”. Sonically she steers things in a similar direction with “Thoughts”, a semi-improvised stream of consciousness that sees Charli engage in a series of self-destructive behaviours in an attempt to block out the memories of a certain someone. It’s rare to hear her get sentimental but “Official” takes a page out of Swift’s back catalogue as Charli fondly remembers her first date with on/off boyfriend Huck Kwong and how “these are things that could make us official”. Production wise, both this track and “I Don’t Wanna Know” wouldn’t sound out of place on Charli’s debut album True Romance, as she dials back the autotune and lets her natural vocal talent flow free. Friendships are also a recurring theme of the album, best seen on “Cross You Out”, which features vocals from Sky Ferreria and is about "leaving someone toxic behind and finally feeling free”. The pain of losing a close friend is rarely discussed both in music and the media generally, and though there’s countless articles, books and films dedicated to getting over a romantic break-up, it seems friendships haven’t received the same treatment. The album explores both the highs and lows of adult friendship; the moody synths of Cross You Out serving as an emotional catharsis, while “Click” sees Charli celebrating the finer things in life accompanied by her close friends, collaborating with Kim Petras and Tommy Cash for the second time. Finally, there’s euphoric synths and thumping beat of “Silver Cross”, which Charli describes as an “emotional club banger” about “taking a friend out for a night out when they need to forget someone”.
While many artists have professed that their latest body of work is their “most personal”, for Charli it’s about more than releasing a self-titled album and omitting the “XCX” from her stage name. In a 2018 interview with the Guardian, she said she felt “quite alone at the moment, more so than I’ve ever felt in my life” and in September this year that she told NME about being open to the idea of going to therapy after using music and work as an escape for so long. With more and more people opening up about their mental health in her native UK, she seems keen to break the stigma that “therapy is a bit LA”, though music continues to be a safe space for Charli to explore her emotions. Of the album’s creative process, she said: “I write what’s on my mind, and I write what I feel. And at this point in time, I felt like I didn’t want to be Charli XCX the performer, or the artist. I just wanted to be Charli, the human, that’s the name that my friends call me, my parents call me, my collaborators call me. That’s who I am, and that’s what I wanted to put into this album. And it just felt right. It felt like therapy.” Breaking away from the mould the music industry has tried to put her in since her career took off in 2013 has clearly paid off, as her spontaneous approach to song writing – which saw her create an entire album with A.G. Cook in just 24 hours - and willingness to explore her vulnerability has allowed her to form an even closer bond with her dedicated fanbase that will undoubtedly last for years to come.