Tuesday, July 10, 2018

album review: 'pop 2' by charli xcx (five year anniversary!)

I'm not surprised this beat out everything else on the docket by a considerable margin. Yes, J.I.D. and N.E.R.D. got close and thankfully those sadists who wanted me to review Heartbreak On A Full Moon never really got groundswell, but if there was a project that attracted considerable attention very late last year, it was this one.

And when you think about it in a traditional context, it's a strange one too, but that's more because Charli XCX's entire career has been bizarre. Her debut True Romance in 2013 never really got traction - mostly because it was painfully mediocre - but she still had 'I Love It' with Icona Pop and her follow-up Sucker a year later had a genuine hit with 'Boom Clap' and seemed like the perfect project to break her through into the mainstream with a distinctive sound and style... and then that didn't happen. Instead, she decided to join the cutting edge of modern pop production by linking up with the P.C. Music crew and SOPHIE, which led to a lot of critical acclaim and a diehard cult following, but not really any hits. Instead, we got EPs like Vroom Vroom and mixtapes like Number 1 Angel and the one we'll be talking about today, Pop 2. And given that I only opened my schedule to EPs and mixtapes as of this year, I didn't really weigh in on either project, so let me handle that now: they're pretty good. I will say it's notable how much SOPHIE's sound has evolved since her production work on Vroom Vroom and that Number 1 Angel definitely had its high points - most notably when cupcakKe showed up - but for as much hype as Charli XCX has gotten for this work, I was a little underwhelmed. Granted, I'm the weirdo who still thinks 'Need Ur Luv' is her best ever song by a considerable margin, but I think my larger issue is that the main synth melody lines felt kind of undercooked when we got them at all. But hey, neither of these have received the level of hype that Pop 2 got, so hopefully that was the one that really clicked, right?

Well, not quite - but it still is quite good and i'm rapidly coming to realize that my preferences for what I like from Charli XCX are very different than those who are in her larger fanbase, and I'd put money on her listening to them over me. But as a whole, Pop 2 is a more refined and streamlined project that her other tapes and arguably one of her better projects overall, maybe not having the lightning in a bottle that was 'Need Ur Luv' but showing an artist comfortable in her lane and sound and with a wealth of collaborators looking to enable it.

And thus I want to get my issues with this project out of the way pretty fast, and arguably they're larger issues that I have with the PC Music aesthetic as a whole, which I think I could come to like more with their icy slices of synth, blocky beats, blinding sheen, and occasional flirtation with trap snares and hi-hats. It's the extremes of mainstream pop buffed into a mirror shine, burrowing into just enough off-kilter edges and warping cascades of overlayered melody to hit some stunning moments... but man, if there is a sound and texture that could use a solid underlying groove, it is this one. Yes, I get some of the stuttered, jagged warping is part of the point, but my favourite pop songs have that coursing foundation that drives into the hook - probably more of a fundamentally traditionalist point of view than the forward thinking electronica PC Music pushes out, but I'll admit that's one reason I tend to gravitate to Poppy's music with similar themes and tones but with firmer underlying compositions. And when you go through the songs I like better from Charli XCX's list of collaborators like from Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Alma, Kim Petras, or even cupcakKe, that foundational groove driving into the hook has been what pulls me back. Whereas on Pop 2, certain cuts just don't have that sense of momentum - 'Backseat' gets close but never fully coalesces those jagged elements, and when you get tracks like 'Tears' with the stuttered tones and howling screams you're left wishing that with more groove it wouldn't feel like such an overstuffed pileup. That's another thing - I can appreciate maximalism as a production style, but both Charli XCX and PC Music have a weird tendency to over-emphasize the treble in their production to slightly blow out their more synthetic elements, both the vocal filters and synthesizers, and it does get distracting, actively grating on the first third of 'Unlock It' but fortunately the bubblier tones when Kim Petras comes in drowns it out. Then there are the guest vocalists... and look, while it can't be easy to ride this production, cupcakKe and maybe Mykki Blanco are the only ones who seem to 'get' this aesthetic - don't get me wrong, Jay Park and Tommy Cash sound okay, but their content and delivery just don't fit the uber-synthetic space Charli XCX inhabits.

But that raises another criticism I have around some of the writing here: yes, there's something definitely intriguing about Charli XCX's passionate, desperate yearning that has her wishing she could transcend emotions to find the same synthetic, calculated place to take sex without any consequences that some guys have, it's what gives 'Backseat' and 'Out Of My Head' and 'Lucky' and 'Femmebot' such punch, and it also helps make 'Track 10' easily my favourite cut here, not just in how it juxtaposes what sounds like a harp against the whirling borderline-chiptune spikes and heavy vocal overdubs, but also the remix of her older song shows her finding real faith in a partner stepping up to show emotional support unparalleled by the rest of the record. But I do wish Charli XCX had leaned into the futuristic subtext and truly warped metaphorical possibilities of the writing beyond half-gargled trap hooks like on 'I Got It', a song only really saved by cupcakKe and not helped by how I just cannot tolerate Brooke Candy in any capacity. It just strikes me as the one place Charli XCX could really push to match the sonic experimentation, that's really it.

But to be fair, this is a mixtape, and we're most here to watch Charli XCX bounce off unconventional production with a murderer's row of great collaborators, and to her credit her partially synthesized vocals are a great match for the more organic, sensual presence you hear from Carly Rae Jepsen or Kim Petras or Dorian Electra, or even against the harder edge from Tove Lo. And when you add to it how well Alma just dominates the hook of 'Out Of My Head' - she really deserves to be bigger than she is - or how well Dorian Electra compliments the fluorescently garish synth groove of 'Femmebot', or how M0 plays off what sounds like robotic woodwinds on 'Porsche, there's more hits than misses. Hell, I actually really liked how well the wispy vocal layering of 'Lucky' builds some real swell, an easy predecessor to what 'Track 10' delivers with one of the stronger hooks. And even songs I don't entirely like such as 'Tears' do have production details I really appreciate - Charli XCX and Caroline Polachek have really good chemistry and I like those unearthly screams lingering in the back of the mix to highlight the unsteady rage beneath the sadness of the breakup.

But as a whole... again, while I find this to be a very good project, I'm firmly aware what keeps Charli XCX from really clicking for me is what many of her fans find so appealing... and what probably keeps her outside the mainstream, at least for now. Because hell, if you give these songs a stronger underlying foundation driving into the hook the production is not that far removed from tones you'll otherwise hear in pop, but it's that unstable, rickety assembly that gives PC Music and Charli XCX their distinctive sound. And even then, as much as I hope Charli XCX takes her writing a step deeper or more complex, she's still got plenty of space to expand within this sound with or without me, so with all of that in mind I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation. If you haven't gotten on board with Charli XCX's mixtapes, this is a fine place to get onboard, and I think you'll wind up surprised how much you enjoy it - check it out!

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