‘Charli’ Is Basically ‘Pop 2.5’ (but that’s not such a bad thing)

As far as mainstream pop goes, few can catch up to Charli. At only twenty-seven years old, the Cambridge born singer has already released three studio albums as well as four mixtapes and two extended plays. That’s not even counting the singles she puts out on a regular basis, and then add a good dozen of songs as a featured artist. She’s an active gal! Through her projects, she experimented with many different sides of what pop could mean. In her early albums, it was bubbly, power pop like, built for radio success.

Then, as she gained confidence, she ventured in more electronic registers, even joining the limited range of artists who can call themselves ‘avant-pop’. She extended her list of collaborators, both in the studio booth and on the producing team. What transpired of these new efforts were refreshing pieces of music. Both Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 were the works of someone who knew what she was doing, but also had a tremendous amount of fun doing it. She pushed the boundaries of what pop could be. Some of her songs on there sound like she’s banging on pots with a spatula in the middle of space, and they still sound as appealing as the most overplayed club hits.

But with this came inevitable drawbacks. If Charli’s fans never left her despite her many genre changes, her label wasn’t so kind. Since 2014, she had been releasing her full length projects as mixtapes. One can only admire her drive to keep doing what she loved rather than what she was expected to do, but this wasn’t always easy for her. No studio release means no promotion, means less opportunity to extend her reach. Her fanbase, or Angels as she calls them, may be very loving, but they’re still not a replacement for a professional promotion team.

Charli is the result of years of looking for her place in a complicated industry. The title indicates that this will be the most personal project for the singer. It defines her. If you didn’t know who Charli was before, it should be fixed after these fifty minutes spent with her and her friends. So, does it work ? Was Charli worth the wait ?

The answer to this is the most boring one I could give you: yes and no. Charli plays both with the poppy earworms that defined her early studio releases and dabbles with the electro and experimental influences of Pop 2. The main reason for disappointment is in the uneven division of these aspects.

When Charli is good, it is extremely good. It is pretty unbelievable that ‘Shake It’, a four minute track where eerie whispered rap, water noises and ear-shattering bass drops succeed each other, can exist in a mainstream pop album. Other highlights include ‘Click’, a fun feature with Kim Petras and Tommy Cash, ‘Cross You Out’ with the seldom publicized Sky Ferreira, and the closing track ‘2099’ with previous collaborator Troye Sivan. This Charli is exciting, fresh, always a few steps ahead of what is expected of her.

With such impressive tracks to her name, it is difficult not to be underwhelmed by the rest of the album. Charli has many collaborations — more than half of the tracks feature at least one other artists. If Aitchison’s cameleon ability may work to her advantage on a certain number of songs, on this album it often feels like she is the featured artist rather than the one meant to be in the spotlight. ‘1999’ is fun, but feels completely out of place on the album. ‘Warm’ and ‘February 2017’ very much feel like they belong on HAIM and Clairo’s respective solo projects rather than an XCX one. As for the Lizzo feature ‘Blame It On Your Love’, it is a bit of a mystery, the boldness of either of its artists vanishing in a generic and inoffensive radio-friendly single.

And yet the album is unfortunately at its weakest when Aitchison is on her own. ‘Next Level Charli’ is a great opener — but the second third of the album mainly constituted of her solo efforts is a bit of a slog to get through. They range between ballads and soft pop tracks that unfortunately have trouble sticking.

All these criticisms make it sound like Charli is a terrible album. So here’s a twist for you: it’s not. It’s nowhere near bad. In fact, it might be one of the best pop releases of the year. That’s how good Charli is at what she does. A bad Charli XCX album is an incredible release for anyone else.

What disappoints in Charli is not the quality of the music itself, but how little it shows the artistry of its star. It is exciting that she has more mainstream support than before; it is way less exciting if that means she has to lose what made her unique to get any kind of studio support. I’m fine with her losing a bit of her individuality if that is really the career she wants. I can’t pretend to know what is going on in her head or to know what’s best for her. All I know is that this is a good album, but not a logical continuation of what she let us see before. If anything, it actually takes a few steps back. If this is the path her career needs to stay on, then be it. I’ll find a way to be happy with the few highlights that remind me of who she can be without outside constraints. But I have a feeling this is just the start of her journey towards finding herself, and that her best days are far from over. We’ll see what the future holds. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to ‘Shake It’ on repeat.

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