‘Pop 2’: Charli XCX Auto-Tunes Out the Demons & Proves Herself to Be the Ultimate Curator of Cool (Review)

Charli XCX Auto-tunes out the demons and gives pop a much-needed upgrade with the help of an international crew of collaborators.

“Go fuck your prototype / I’m an upgrade of your stereotype.”

Look: Sophia isn’t the only Femmebot poised to take over the world.

After leading us into 2017 with her Number 1 Angel mixtape back in March, a collection of thumping, PC Music-produced future-bops that still holds up as one of the year’s best, the ever-evolving 25-year-old singer-songwriter known as Charli XCX is now laying this godforsaken year to rest with Pop 2, a second go-around of genre-obliterating sound, complete with a roster of collaborators that rivals even the most intelligent of “You Might Also Like” algorithms.

Charli, of all the pop girls, seems to ‘get’ it more than most when it comes to what’s legitimately cutting-edge, as opposed to what’s hot in the moment – an important distinction. She might never get the radio play she deserves with these mixtape projects, if only because she’s too busy being ten steps ahead to regurgitate a tired trend or hop on an existing hit.

Beyond what sounds cool, she also understands who’s cool – like working with A.G. Cook, or the Empress of E•MO•TION and the Queen of Gay Twitter herself: Carly Rae Jepsen.

“Backseat” is the best-case scenario that could have come from these songwriting superstars: top-notch, hyper-emotional lyricism (“Run through a city at midnight just to feel like a star / I want it all, even if it’s fake“) meets PC Music-sculpted slabs of metallic sounds, resulting in a spine-tingling drive-and-cry anthem. (Carly knows a thing or two about running away, you know.)

I’m better off alone, all alone, all alone,” the girls declare on their melancholy night ride, suddenly veering off the road and stuttering their way towards the song’s brilliant, crashing conclusion. Let’s get a Thelma & Louise-themed music video for this, yes?

For much of the mixtape, Charli rides shotgun – and/or backseat – allowing her sizable crew of co-hosts to take turns on the mic and show off their superstar skills, as with “Out Of My Head” – a bass-bumping house party anthem penned alongside Alma with a guest verse by Tove Lo.

Like many of the Pop 2 songs, the track’s sad to its core – no matter how much the music might bop. It’s as though Charli threw a massive rager to forget feelings; dancing with friends, drowning sorrows in pills and potions (like a slumber party) and fucking the pain away. So, a typical Saturday night for some of us.

Even when she’s not directly collaborating with an artist, Charli’s still drawing from the best of ’em: on the sparse and spooky ballad “Lucky” (sadly not a Britney cover, but likely a nod to her idol nonetheless), Charli taps into Cher‘s Auto-Tune space-age loneliness circa Living Proof and the layered lushness of Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as she mournfully questions a fuckboy who’s done her wrong and won’t pick up. (Or, perhaps she’s the person on the other line trying to call Lady Gaga at the club on “Telephone.”)

Charli’s voice is heavily processed, stretched, sped-up and stuttered throughout Pop 2, but it’s not to mask her vocal ability. She’s clearly just bored by mere human constraints.

“Femmebot” is a brief break of pure upbeat techno-euphoria, doing Robyn proud by inheriting the title of the Swede Queen’s 2010 glitchy classic and serving up her own surging, short-circuiting dance floor offering. And, like Robyn, Charli comes at us hard as a motherboard with robo-puns aplenty.

“Unlock It,” similarly, sees Charli in a more chipper state, dipping her toes into a lush candy-coated, J-Pop paradise of cotton candy dreams alongside rising pop crusader Kim Petras – who’s served up some of this year’s shiniest of gems in her own right including “I Don’t Want It At All” – and Korean-American superstar-slash-former K-Pop boy-bander, Jay Park.

Of all the mind-melting productions, nothing is weirder or more jarring than the brilliantly bonkers “I Got It,” a madcap concoction that feels like a distant cousin to M.I.A.‘s Internet noise-meets-world music, a la Vicki Leekx.

I got it, I got it, I got it,” Charli mutters like a modem on the fritz as her guests serve up ample attitude: fashion world fixture Brooke Candy sasses and sneers, “Lipgloss” BFF Cupcakke reunites with Charli to spit another flaming mile-a-minute verse, and this year’s breakout Brazilian bombshell drag queen-slash-“Sua Cara” superstar Pabllo Vittar rocks her crown while wailing about her stronger-than-sorcery bunda.

It’s a mad, everything-plus-the-kitchen sink moment of femme empowerment – like the Spice Girls in the age of social media and instant gratification.

The pleasure in the productions, beyond the solid songcraft that Charli’s been good for since the days of “Stay Away,” is their sheer unpredictability: midway through “Delicious” with Tommy Cash, the music drops out and a cell phone rings – with Charli’s own “Boom Clap” as the ringtone, amusingly – before the track transforms into a fiercely frantic ’90s Euro-club stormer.

The mixtape ends on a massive note with “Track 10,” a reimagining of her unreleased track “Blame It On Your Love,” co-penned with StarGate and Noonie Bao. As Charli stutters and shies away from the first sign of genuine affection (“Every time you get too close I run-a-run away” – obviously a “Sometimes” homage, such a Godney stan), the production swells as waves of digital noise flood into the speakers, overwhelming our digital heroine’s insecure admissions.

In fact, this whole futuristic party feels like one big, bouncy way of Auto-Tuning out the demons. She did kick off this mixtape by declaring “I can’t escape all the voices, and so I turn it up,” after all.

Pop 2 is a bold, yet appropriate name for this thrillingly unhinged, cultural boundary-blurring set: Charli and company are here to prove that pop isn’t dead. It just needed an upgrade.

Pop 2 was released on December 15. (iTunes / Spotify)

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