Search for any thinkpieces, stories or tweets that guess what the “future of pop” sounds like, and the resounding void will call back, “Charli XCX.” Charli, a mainstream pop star turned underground and cult-followed hitmaker, is widely lauded as the harbinger of hyperpop into the cultural foreground, largely supplemented by her collaborations with the late SOPHIE. After two hyperpop-focused 2017 mixtapes, her collaboration-heavy 2019 eponymous record, and a lockdown album, “how i’m feeling now,” that was the first of its kind in detailing pandemic exhaustion, Charli reverts course with “CRASH,” an album swerving in the direction of current pop sounds. The result is an album that veers off-course sometimes, but ultimately has Charli in the driver’s seat, pedal to the metal.
The opener, “Crash,” follows the unspoken precedent that decrees pop stars’ songs about automobiles are automatically great, joining Lorde’s “Green Light,” Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car,” Gwen Stefani’s “Crash,” and Charli’s own “Vroom Vroom.” Here we see the first influences of Janet Jackson and 80’s music; the jumpy beat with sprigs of synths is playful even when she declares on the chorus, “I’m about to crash into the water, gonna take you with me / I’m high-voltage, self-destructive, end it all so legendary.” Many have hypothesized the song signifies Charli’s termination of her contract with Atlantic Records, as “CRASH” is her last album with them, but it works just as well as self-reflection and indulgence of negative traits.
“New Shapes,” which follows, is a more mellow version of the 80’s influence displayed on the last track. It features pop-heavy hitters Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek, both previous collaborators with Charli. The song is about the complexity and flexibility of love, with the singers stating, “But sometimes I need all night, all day / We could fall in love in new shapes.” The song perfectly sets up Polachek’s autotune-like vocal ability, the backing track quieted as she commands the room, singing, “You call it art, but you pulled on my heart / And you twisted it into a new shape.”
Lead single “Good Ones,” which arrived last September, is a clear indication of the “evil era” Charli teased on Twitter. The propulsive, dark electro beat wraps around Charli as she spits, “Don’t want the kisses unless they’re bitter / I’m hooked on touches that leave me weaker.” The chorus, a rollercoaster of the phrase “I always let the good ones go-ooh-ooh,” lends a perfect opportunity for a catchy dance break, and Charli does so in its music video, at a funeral.
“Beg For You,” featuring fellow UK pop superstar Rina Sawayama, is the first of two tracks on the album to feature a sample. Unfortunately, its sample of “Cry For You” by September presents this song as a swing and a miss, a dated and somewhat lackluster effort. It’s a wasted opportunity to feature Sawayama — whose debut album showcased her uncanny ability to shape her voice and style to any genre — and put her in a strictly pop box. This collaboration posed a chance for Charli to explore a genre she hadn’t before, supplemented by Sawayama’s voice. Instead, the chemistry the two clearly share doesn’t translate within the song itself.
Fortunately, “Used to Know Me,” the other song that includes a sample, is more successful. Though it might be due to the fact that the song it interpolates (Robin S.’s “Show Me Love”) is much better than “Cry For You,” Charli nevertheless struts her stuff on the house beat with just enough tweaks to the original to make it work. The club-ready banger shows Charli looking down on a past lover, delivering the instantly catchy “Held me back, tied me up inside a cage / Had to change my life ‘cause I knew you’d stay the same.”
The slinky, sexy and playful “Baby,” despite being a good song, prompted a bizarre Twitter rant that a pop star of her caliber probably shouldn’t be having. After a condescending fan tweeted that the single wasn’t doing anything for them, Charli reiterated her visual consistency within the record thus far as opposed to her previous ones. She ended the argument with, “but if you don’t think “Baby” is a bop then… idk that’s just [very] suspicious to me.” And she’s right! The thumping bassline and lyrics touting “I’mma make you my (baby)” and “I’mma fuck you up” shows her ability to exercise full control over a song, or a lover. Some have said she can write a more creative chorus, but the four-word chorus enhances the song well, lest we forget about her previous lyrics of repeating phrases like “I got it,” “Lock it” or “All alone.”
Other highlights include “Lightning,” which features a backing track full of lightning strikes and flamenco flair that is good enough to distract from the somewhat half-baked lyrics. On “Baby,” she’s fully in control, but here, her “stupid heart can’t fight it” after being struck like lightning. “Twice” is a cute bop about being grateful for her friends and the anxiety that someday it will vanish. Instead of reminiscing on the good times, Charli interestingly instructs herself to “Don’t think twice, don’t think twice […] Don’t think about it.”
“Yuck” also stands out, as the TikTok-ready hit is seemingly perfect for the current “ick” trend going around. “Yuck, now you got me blushin’ / Cheeks so red when the blood starts rushing,” Charli details as a partner acts too quickly on a relationship while she’s just trying to “get lucky.” Effort should ultimately be appreciated, but Charli, comedically, takes it too far with being annoyed. “Yuck, quit acting like a puppy / Fuck, going all lovey-dovey on me,” she croons in an apathetic voice.
All in all, Charli presents a record that might disappoint and overwhelm fans in equal measure. There are future hits like “Good Ones,” “Crash” and “Baby,” but there are also confusing steps like “Beg For You” or the cloyingly-sung “Move Me.” There are enough positives here to keep fans happy, but the future of pop? It’s still yet to be determined. A total crash and burn, though, this record is not.