“Fuck playing the game,” Charli XCX wrote in a note to fans following the release of ‘Pop 2’, admitting along the way that she’d lost her way in recent months, losing sight of what she wanted from life. The insinuation was she had been very much playing the game up until she made her first mixtape of 2017, ‘Number 1 Angel‘, and had been left frustrated, disheartened and directionless by the fact making all the right moves hadn’t got her to the big prize. Pop success had become like playing chess against a supercomputer.
Luckily, disregarding the way pop stars are “meant” to make and release music has given Charli a new sense of freedom. That is abundantly clear listening to the experimental, feature-heavy ‘Pop 2’. Each song is a metamorphic piece of dance-pop that traverses disorientating samples (‘Femmebot’), skittering beats (‘I Got It’), and a ton of auto-tune (‘Delicious’). What’s immediately striking is that Charli somehow manages to keep pop at the centre of every piece of this forward-thinking, boundary-pushing puzzle, never letting her experiments overshadow melody or hook.
‘Track 10’, for instance, screeches in on a bed of rewound, slowed-down gabbles, before zooming through rippling synths and the kind of eerie drones you’d want a Halloween remix to be slathered in. It never quite settles on one sound – and is the opposite of the very unapologetically pop ‘Out Of My Head’ – yet the chorus line of “I blame it on your love/Every time I fuck it up” is the thing that’s left front and centre in your memory.
Charli has never been shy about collaborating and ‘Pop 2’ is full of co-productions. All but two songs boast a featured artist (and the whole thing was made with PC Music’s AG Cook), but there are no gratuitous cameos. Whether it’s pop cult queen Carly Rae Jepsen forlornly breaking hearts on the shimmering ‘Backseat’ or Korean-American singer Jay Park on the soft undulation of ‘Unlock It’, everyone not only earns their place, but is heralded by Charli and AG too – the production shifts every time a new guest arrives on the scene, subtly giving them the space to do their own thing. Charli’s second mixtape of the year isn’t just about proving she’s more than your average pop star, but about her settling into her role as innovator, celebrator, and curator supreme.