There’s a profound difficulty in locating any of Charli XCX’s music historically, or even within the continuum of her own output, because she’s never made the same thing twice. As a fan this is thrilling, but as a critic it’s deeply puzzling. After all, a major part of our job is to give context, to tease out through-lines that connect one album to the next, and to the currents of pop music at large. If there is any connective tissue to be found in Charli’s body of work, perhaps it’s in her urge to destroy whatever came before for the sake of what’s to come.
Her debut, 2013’s True Romance, launched the young Charlotte Aitchison to immediate pop goth it-girl status. The album features a top-to-bottom roster of melancholy yet twinkling odes to youthful loves won and lost and brooded over endlessly.
The follow-up was 2014’s Sucker, a less intriguing collection of cheeky, yell-along anthems. The album is fun but ultimately disappointing in its sonic trepidation and its transparent attempts to recreate the scrappy, bad-but-not-too-bad girl formula of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” (which Charli wrote). Sucker also arrived on the heels of the odious Iggy Azalea collab “Fancy,” and “Boom Clap,” her two highest charting releases to date, and it’s difficult to escape the thorniness of tracks like “Break The Rules,” which seems aimed simultaneously at the music industry at large and at her newfound stardom.
Charli’s new Number 1 Angel mixtape elaborates on the latest iteration of Ms. XCX, an iteration first introduced on last year’s Vroom Vroom EP. That EP, a collaboration with the British underground DJ and producer SOPHIE, felt like a clear departure from the Sucker era. It retained Charli’s knack for hook-heavy pop declarations and her tendency towards punchy, monosyllabic phrasing, but the production felt like new terrain. The dark moodiness which permeated True Romance was shellacked in SOPHIE’s (and by extension, his cohorts in the digital-only PC Music label/cabal) trademark hyper-gloss. If Sucker was intended as a baseball bat to the industry’s headlights, Vroom Vroom felt like a knife to their throat.
Number 1 Angel arrives as Charli gears up for the release of her third LP, an album she’s described in interviews as a “party record.” It’s a puzzling description given that the latest iteration of Charli XCX seems more likely to be reveling in some digital wonderland than going to the club. But the first two singles, “Bounce” and the Lil Yachty collaboration “After The Afterparty” both point in that direction, though the latter seems like internet wish-fulfillment more than anything.
Any doubts about Charli’s current ability to turn the party are dispelled on Number 1 Angel. Unlike Vroom Vroom, which often felt like a vehicle for SOPHIE as much as Charli (as evinced by his live set last year, which included three of the four songs off the EP), the new mixtape feels firmly under Charli’s control. For the first time, there are real hints of her past work. “Emotional” and “ILY2” both reverberate with the same kind of twitchy yet laid back charm as True Romance, and “White Roses” is a direct callback to that album’s bottom half gem, “Black Roses.”
But it’s not all throwbacks. If there were any lingering doubts, Number 1 Angel reaffirms Charli’s skill as a pop fusionist. “3AM (Pull Up)” and “Roll With Me” are both propelled to banger status by a mish mash of references: dancehall, squelchy early 2000s uber-pop, house, R&B, New Wave. The features are relatively low-profile (no Iggy Azalea here) but deeply effective. Charli trades verses with UK rappers Starrah and Raye on “Dreamer,” MØ’s verse on “3AM” turns the emotional tide for the better and the one-two punch of Atlanta-based singer/rapper ABRA and Chicago powerhouse MC Cupcakke on the albums two closing tracks – “Drugs” and “Lipgloss” respectively – is one of the mixtape’s strongest points.
Whether or not Charli XCX and her PC Music cohorts have transported themselves to the space-age future of music, Number 1 Angel suggests that Charli XCX might turn out to be one of pop’s most compelling figures. I’ll stay tuned, whatever version of her we get.