She wasn’t supposed to make it past 25. Charlotte Aitchison’s Charli XCX persona has never been geared toward longevity. Whether braving an apocalyptic day of reckoning on “Nuclear Seasons” or literalizing her mortality on “Die Tonight,” the Cambridge singer has long displayed a sense of fatalism in her music. On True Romance, Charli’s oncoming demise demanded romantic consummation, no matter how transitory. On Sucker, she combated encroaching death with puerile hedonism and carnal distraction. And unlike compatriots and fellow Bacchanalia frontline journalists Arctic Monkeys, whose distaste for English nightlife is so acute you might mistake them for teetotalers, Charli revels in the debauchery of the London club scene, viewing its inevitable hangover as fait accompli and, consequently, a nonissue. This is why her career never seemed likely to sustain itself; the good times were bound to kill this death-obsessed girl. But the joke’s on us: she’s still alive, and on Pop 2, Charli XCX returns for more profligacy, yet this time with a keener perspective recalibrated by the nuances of young adult maturity.
There’s a certain territoriality and arrogance in Charli naming her mixtape Pop 2, but much of her music is spent negotiating the line between admirable confidence and aggressive hauteur. Charli spent roughly half of Sucker explaining that she was too good for you — even if she’ll mete out second and third chances for the sake of comfort and familiarity — while elsewhere flaunting her superhuman tolerance to narcotics and a vast wealth that puts Croesus to shame. And so on Pop 2, we see more of the cocksureness Charli exhibits in spades, as on the escapist-affirmative “Out of My Head” (ft. Tove Lo and ALMA), as well as a self-assured autonomy on tracks like the prurient, cloying “Unlock It” (ft. Kim Petras and Jay Park).
Yet on most of these tracks, Charli XCX sounds to have abjured the truculence and grandeur that granted her notoriety on singles like “Boom Clap,” “Fancy,” and “I Love It,” with much emphasis on her guests, which include Carly Rae Jepsen, CupcakKe, Mykki Blanco, Pabllo Vittar, MØ, Dorian Electra, and more. The Caroline Polachek duet “Tears” finds the singer reckoning with her proclivity for caprice, singing “I killed our life, I’m crazy […] Door shut tight, that ain’t love, no.” In place of her trademark overconfidence, Charli delivers a comparatively unadorned performance, signaling what seems to be genuine feelings of remorse. She may not be the most convincing agent of regret, but Charli didn’t pen these songs in hopes of credence or validation. Instead, she’s singing for her own benefit, to make sense of the needless waffling and unrest in her relationships. More power to her.
In the last 40 seconds of “Delicious” (ft. Tommy Cash), the track shifts from a scrupulously produced club banger to a pristine choir. This is an apt metonym for the instrumentation and arrangements of Pop 2. With production help from the likes of SOPHIE, Life Sim, King Henry, EASYFUN, and executive producer A. G. Cook, the music vacillates between synth-powered spectral screeches and jolts and immaculate choral beds, as if to reconcile the delineation between the impersonal nature of club life, with its ephemeral hookups, and the deceptive jubilance of a real, long-term relationship. The result is mixed bag, with the album’s industrial moments more engrossing by virtue of their immediacy and the more human elements of the production turning into a slog if left alone for too long.
For better or for worse, Charli XCX is embracing maturity on her fourth mixtape. Now 25 years (and some change) old, Charlotte Aitchison looks to be relieving herself of the “born to die young” credo she’s so ardently maintained for the past few years in favor of something more stable. And though she may not find what she’s looking for anytime soon, Charli XCX, on Pop 2, is at least looking down a new path.