If the cover art didn’t give it away, the music does: Charli XCX is ready to reveal more of herself than ever before on her latest album, Charli. On her third studio album, the party-loving British singer-songwriter keeps consistent with the typical strong hooks and eccentric production that fans have come to expect from her. However, while many of the songs on Charli would sound right at home on a dance floor, the album is underscored by a new vulnerability, one that looks to the future with equal amounts of excitement and uncertainty.
Over the course of her career, Charli XCX has evolved into a unique force in the industry. When she first emerged in the pop scene with a trifecta of radio favorites – “I Love It” with Icona Pop, “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea, and her solo hit “Boom Clap” – her music demonstrated her knack for a solid hook and electronic-flavored pop, but her sound blended fairly cohesively into the pop landscape. Charli’s subsequent releases trended away from wide-appealing radio fare and towards bolder, more experimental production. She simultaneously continued to develop her ability to write a contagious pop melody, and on occasion, branched out into writing for other artists. Charli arrives as Charli XCX’s first full-length studio album in five years, but it does not serve as a reintroduction. Rather, it is a welcome continuation of the work fans have been following from the start.
Charli loves to collaborate, and Charli is full of solid tracks made with guest artists. One of her artistic trademarks is her ability to maintain her artistic vision on a collaboration. Every track with a feature is undeniably a Charli XCX song. In many of the collaborations, the guest artists blend so cohesively into the song that their contributions are distinguishable from Charli’s only on repeat listens, from Clairo’s soft echoes on “February 2017” to Kim Petras’ brash braggadocio on “Click.” Even “Shake It,” featuring the colorful cast of Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar, is a pure expression of the Charli XCX ethos, from the bawdy, hedonistic lyricism to the haphazard, heavy production. Despite the blending of voices throughout the album, Charli never lets you forget whose point of view is at the forefront. She has evidently chosen to surround herself with artists who sympathize with her versatility and volatility.
Each song offers insight to Charli’s world, but the record’s emotional core lies in a suite of songs in the middle of the album that stand out because of their lack of featured artists. The progression of “White Mercedes,” “Silver Cross,” “I Don’t Want to Know,” and “Official” weaves a narrative of a vacillating, but loving relationship. The lyrical content and melodies of this section veer toward balladry in a way that many Charli songs avoid, but the production remains electronic and danceable. While the transition directly from the heartfelt “Official” to the riotous “Shake It” is a bit jarring, the songs in which Charli’s voice is isolated blend naturally with the numerous collaborations; insecurity and confidence are equally vital to the album’s narrative.
Prior to the release of the album, Charli published screenshots from the Notes app on her phone to Instagram account. “Sometimes I think I deserve to be a ‘bigger’ artist,” her June 2019 post read. “Sometimes I literally don’t want to be an artist at all. Maybe I’m just supposed to be a songwriter?” Despite her own indecision, Charli supports the argument for Charli XCX to remain a solo artist. This album marries her idiosyncratic sound with vulnerable lyricism, and that combination has the potential for universal appeal in our era of rapid technological advancement and existential fear. Charli XCX weaves her emotional turmoil into layers of autotune, synthesizers, and other artists’ voices, and the result is incredibly authentic. Ultimately, Charli offers catharsis in a way few pop artists can achieve.