There’s something ineffably magical about watching a pop star reinvent themselves overnight. For Charli XCX, her transformation from the shiny, angst-ridden alt-pop of her origins to pop in a more pristine, euphoria-fueled form has come a bit more gradually, yet no less dramatic. Her third studio album, scheduled to release later this year, has been promised as her most “pop-commercial” effort to date. Number 1 Angel arrives in the interim, continuing on with the rollout of her newfound total-pop identity.
The mixtape hints towards the style of pop we can expect from the forthcoming third album, but it doesn’t exactly make the contours of this ongoing transformation any more clear. Number 1 Angel is so thoroughly bold and arresting, a form of maximalist bubblegum pop tinged with Charli’s trademark iconoclast ethos, it’s hard to imagine how much bigger or fully-formed she can get with her newly emergent pop sound on the album proper. The opener, Dreamer, sounds quite literally like what dreams are made of - or at least the dreams of someone weaned on the heyday of 90’s bubblegum pop and 21st century pop culture. The track is an immaculate blending of dream pop with Rihanna-style rap. Starrah - the major-leagues songwriter behind hits by Drake, The Weeknd, and Travis Scott, among others - and Raye - a young, up-and-coming singer and songwriter from the UK - find a perfect chemistry rapping back-to-back verses. It’s supersized in every way, but not out of control: a pop song so big it flirts with it’s own destruction without ever imploding in on itself.
It’s doubtless a product of her recent collaborations with the PC Music collective that her take on pop is now so pristine and self-consciously blemish-less. The recent marriage between the two began last year with her excellent Vroom Vroom EP, which was primarily produced by Sophie, a former PC Music main player who has since taken off in his own direction. Then, in fall of last year, Charli hired AG Cook, the PC Music co-founder and one of its brightest talents, as her creative director. The production credits for the mixtape feature an all-star lineup of PC Music producers. Sophie or AG Cook are behind the majority of tracks, while Danny L Harle, likely the PC Music producer with the most chart-friendly potential, LifeSim, and EasyFX also make appearances throughout. The only track on the mixtape that doesn’t feature a PC Music member underneath it is the John Hill produced Babygirl (feat. Uffie) - yes, that Uffie - which is the only track on the album that sounds like it could pass off as a remnant of Sucker-era XCX. It’s the sole outlier to an otherwise extremely cohesive project.
The success of this mixtape feels like a significant step in the right direction for both Charli and the PC Music crew. There’s a common refrain associated with the latter group that it’s all just some tongue-in-cheek gag, a nostalgia-fuelled wrestling with 90’s bubblegum pop that is centerless on its own. For some, the group’s self-conscious re-imaginings of pop in its most overblown form amount only to a superficial exercise. But what Number 1 Angel seems to help substantiate is the legitimacy of it all as a movement in its own right, one that contains serious viability as forward-thinking variant of pop music all on its own. The pairing of PC Music with Charli XCX has brought out the real craft the two separate camps possess, more so than anything either has put out prior.
According to Charli, the new mixtape is the product of two weeks of songwriting with AG Cook in LA, where she lives, composed to stave off her restlessness while her new album remains caught in record label limbo. The one single she’s released from the forthcoming album, the Sophie-produced, Lil Yachty-featuring After the Afterparty is one of the most anodyne tracks she’s ever released, so light and nursery-rhyme-esque that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Sophie or Charli XCX product. It brings pause to her earlier proclamation that the new album will be the most “pop-commercial” thing she’s put out. What form of commercial? And what kind of pop? The genre of “pop” music is all too nebulous of an umbrella term in today’s radio landscape to be thoroughly substantive in its own right. But Number 1 Angel does demonstrate that her transformation is still underway, and when the proper album arrives, this bolder form of pop might come along with it.
Words: Andrew Ward