Since the earliest days of her raucous breakthrough with Icona Pop, there hasn’t been a shred of evidence that Charli XCX has ever given a damn about anything, apparently including the trappings of a conventional pop starlet’s career. It’s there for the taking if she wants it, but at some point—circa the bird-waving first line of 2014’s Sucker, most likely—she decided she was better off steering her own course, thank you very much. This evident lack of concern for any easily attainable staying power in the Top 40 stratosphere has afforded her the kind of freedom to screw around and get dirty in the troposphere that other pop artists (cough cough, Katy Perry) can only sigh with envy at.
Because Charli’s dearth of fucks to spare extends to albums, all we have to work with in the zero-to-infinity-year wait until her next LP are a few so-called (not even free!?) mixtapes. Her insistence on the mixtape appellation is appropriate given the amount of crap being thrown against the wall to see what sticks, but Pop 2, released at the tail end of 2017, has an awful lot of interesting splatter painting to show for it. If you’ve ever wondered what a vision of pop music’s future might look like through some tetranocular fusion of Kanye West’s and Robyn’s eyes, this might be a place to start.
The debt to Robyn is obvious during the dancier parts of the album, including a track unabashedly titled “Femmebot.” It’s a fun ’80s synth fest that could also serve to introduce a sort of robot version of the artist’s persona if Pop 2 were more fully realized as a concept album. For his part, Kanye would be especially proud of how boldly and liberally Charli experiments with voice. Indeed, her and rising producer A.G. Cook’s use of autotune makes T-Pain look like a kid with a Talkboy. Pitch correction software here is not so much a trendy gimmick as it is another instrument in the electronic chamber orchestra.
Throughout the album, the vocalists often sound like sentient computers, yearning at turns for what humans call love, or maybe just sex or, hell, maybe just nihilistic partying, because what’s the point really of allowing any sensory inputs that don’t elicit some degree of pleasure? Call it cyberitism: on “Porsche,” Charli even masturbates to fantasies of a luxury sport car. Such self-love has been a running theme in Charli’s work, but takes centerstage on “Delicious” when she sings, “I always think about you when I’m high…I touch myself and then I’m not alone.” Estonian rapper Tommy Cash is ostensibly featured on the track, but is actually cut off mid-verse so Charli can drop a superior rap bridge delivered through a swirling vortex of distortion.
It’s the album’s slower tunes that use vocal distortion to greatest effect, however. The digital textures of opener “Backseat” immediately set the tone for the album both sonically and emotionally, as Carly Rae Jepsen herself joins in to sing about romantic disaffection and the kind of solitude that may or may not be desired but will damn well be cherished. When a throbbing bass line drops on top of duetted cries of “All alone, all alone,” it’s introspective pop at its finest. The pure melodrama of “Tears,” which features the ballsy creative choice of an autotuned howl of anguish, is amplified tenfold when guest singer Caroline Polachek’s vocals are pitched and stretched in otherwise biologically impossible directions. It should be criminal to mess with a voice as beautiful as that of the erstwhile Chairlift frontwoman, but it works wonderfully here. Even more affecting is the vocal sequencing on “Lucky” that transforms Charli into some kind of cyborg woodwind. Though it does take a human touch to drop to a near whisper for a line like “So can I ask you a question/ Do you ever feel guilt for what you’ve done?”
The album’s emotional and musical climax is saved for the very end, however. “Track 10” starts out with a harp undercut but glitchy blips and chits, and continues to crescendo on a constant curve from there with an ever shifting soundscape aided by, you guessed it, the wonders of autotune. “I blame it on your love/ Every time I fuck it up,” she sings. Pop 2’s long-awaited moment of AI-human singularity arrives when the beat picks up and Charli, unable to contain herself any longer, bursts out, “Sorry I blaaaaame it onnnn your looove.” Turns out Charli XCX does care about some things after all. Let’s just hope that remaining a creative force at the vanguard of pop futurism is one of them.