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Charli XCX embraces pop like never before on CRASH

The U.K. star’s relationship to the mainstream is complicated, but her fifth album makes it look easy.

March 22, 2022
Charli XCX embraces pop like never before on <I>CRASH</i>

If Charli XCX had gorged on all that pop stardom had to offer when it was first presented to her on a silver platter nearly a decade ago, she would be unrecognizable by now. That isn’t to say that she wouldn’t have been able to convincingly slide into the Main Pop Girl role post-”Boom Clap” and “Fancy” in the early 2010s – she might have actually done so a little too meticulously. From the very beginning of her mainstream presence, Charli has demonstrated a monstrous natural instinct for the melodic and lyrical structures that reflect the best of what pure pop music has to offer. She even had the quintessential Tumblr It Girl image on lock. And once she was signed into a five-album recording contract with Atlantic Records, she had all of the resources (read: money and access) she could possibly need to dominate as one of the genre’s most prolific figureheads.

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But the give and take relationship between an artist and a major label is not without compromise. If Charli had played by the music industry rules, performing all of the big-budget, choreography-heavy, and aesthetic-driven pop girl duties that would have been asked of her, the artistic freedom that has afforded her the signifier of futuristic pop disrupter over the past half-decade would likely have been siphoned from her in the process. “If I wanted to make loads of fucking money, I’d make the whole album with Stargate and learn how to dance properly, and I’d kill it,” Charli told TIME in 2015 while promoting Sucker, her sophmore record that – however reluctantly – adhered to a safe vision of what her version of palatable pop could be, just left-of-center enough to make a statement about her artistry without ruffling too many feathers internally. “It would be fucking easy for me.”

But she couldn’t restructure pop while simultaneously serving as a piece on its game board. Part of what Charli was able to do is not something that many pop artists, particularly women, are afforded the opportunity to even attempt, which is take the time to explore and develop a meaningful understanding of what her creative landscape looks like. There’s a rarity to the act of spending years wandering down these weird sonic paths while still having a presence in the pop arena without fully committing to residing there. And her formula for keeping that door open for herself was more strategic than she’s been given credit for. Even when she was huddled up in the studio creating club-ready hyperpop with PC Music founder A.G. Cook, her creative director and closest collaborator, she never really went away.

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There was a tongue-in-cheek-ness to the way the singer littered subtle reminders that she knows pop inside and out throughout the mid- to late-2010s. She didn’t make that easy money album with Stargate, but they did serve as producers on the 2015 Selena Gomez single she wrote. “Same Old Love” peaked at No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Charli’s unmistakable musical identity all over it – down to the backing vocals tucked into the chorus. It was an understated call-back to when she passed “I Love It” off to Icona Pop three years prior. Then, there was “Boys,” released in 2017 as the second single to a leaked-then-scrapped third studio album with a female-gaze frenzy of a music video, boasting dozens of male celebrity cameos from Joe Jonas and Aminé to Kaytranada and Jack Antonoff. The following year, Charli hit the road with Taylor Swift as an opener on the Reputation stadium tour.

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Three years had passed between Sucker and the two 2017 mixtapes that would redefine the singer’s role as a genre-bending, avant-garde musician: the slick, underrated Number 1 Angel and the acclaimed, dazzling Pop 2. Over the following three years, Charli and Cook made an album in under 24 hours that she doesn’t plan to ever release, she reconciled the identities of the artist and the person on Charli, and made how i’m feeling now over six-weeks in lockdown, documenting the whole process on social media. The collaboration-heavy releases were innovatively boundless, unafraid of failing because the creator at their helm was (at least externally) so sure of herself, especially without commercial success driving her art. For Charli, the question of whether she would ever venture back into the orbit of mainstream pop as a leading artist was a matter of how and when she would do so, rather than if she was considering it at all. Not like this, or not right now, versus not at all.

On CRASH, her fifth studio album and final release under the Atlantic Records contract she signed as an anti-pop teenager, Charli XCX isn’t just quietly squeezing through that door she left cracked for the better part of her career – she’s driving a car straight through the walls. After nearly a decade of translating her nontraditional sonic approach into something that resembled pop in some way, shape, or form, the singer is crafting a love letter to the genre and fully committing to its demands. If she wasn’t so good at it, it’d qualify as selling out. But on CRASH, Charli sounds right at home cashing in on the resources she’s had at her disposal this whole time to create a genuinely superb pop album.

CRASH trades in the leverage of her experimental records and mixtapes, playing around in her own lingering influence. The post-party emotional catharsis of Number 1 Angel seeps into “Every Rule” and the industrial ballad “Move Me,” which was developed in a writing camp and sparked suggestions to pass the track on to Halsey, Charli told Apple Music. Just two slots down on the tracklist, the singer revives the electric synth-pop core of her debut True Romance with pop maestro Rami Yacoub on “Lightning” – it’s a glimpse into what Main Pop Girl Charli may have sounded like in 2015 had she not gone rogue, but she needed that intermission to craft something this seamless and sharp. For the first time, she’s easing up on the gas just enough for pop to catch up to her..

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Even when she leans into pop’s affinity for nostalgia, she propels in the opposite direction of her peers, passing up the eighties to mine three generations of pulsing dance music. On “Beg For You” with Rina Sawayama, one of only two collaborations on CRASH, Charli flips September’s 2006 hit “Cry For You,” then jumps ahead to the inescapable David Guetta-esque earworms of the early 2010s on “Used To Know Me” before shifting to the new jack swing of the late nineties on “Crash.” But the album’s most Charli-eque tracks – like the fiery “Baby,” which roped the singer into committing to full-blown pop choreo, but not in the vein of a TikTok trend, or the instantly quotable “Yuck!” – are a reminder of who’s behind the wheel. Both would sound flat and corny coming from anyone else, if only for the conviction needed to deliver a line like “Yuck, quit acting like a puppy / Fuck, going all lovey-dovey on me” and wholeheartedly commit to it.

The most interesting commentary that CRASH provides is a rumination on how Charli herself defines and understands the function of pop music, from how it should look and sound to the way it should be shared and experienced. It’s her shortest record yet, clocking in at just under 34 minutes across 12 songs, none of which pass the 4-minute mark – the majority of the songs on the album barely reach 3-minutes. By now, She’s more closely aligned with the ultra-brief recordings of a newcomer like PinkPantheress than she is a chart-darling like Dua Lipa, but Charli finds a middle ground between the two in the pure pop star performance of “Good Ones” and the gleaming electropop of “Constant Repeat.” The short and sweet, streaming-accessible doses of explosive pop know exactly where to shift production to the forefront and where to ease up just in time to hook listeners in for the next hit.

Charli’s mastery of the pop formula is skillfully wielded to keep pace with how the modern music landscape has shifted over the past decade while she was blazing ahead. It may be a slow burn, but in order to have a clear view of how this era of her artistry will be embraced by that same terrain she once abandoned, she has to continue playing the part. She’s done the grand Saturday Night Live performances, shared the conceptually-connected visuals, and tapped into her dedicated fanbase of Angels. Throughout CRASH, Charli XCX never stumbles, because she commited to not taking the easy route when it was first offered to her. Now, she’s traveled this road countless times, in different vehicles and at different speeds. Now, she could do it with her eyes closed.

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Charli XCX embraces pop like never before on CRASH