Number 1 Angel, Charli XCX’s latest mixtape, emerged after three years without any major releases on Charli’s end. That’s not to say that she hasn’t been busy — in the past year alone, Charli has crossed over into J-Pop, performed on Kimmel on white fur-lined set while wearing a white fur bikini and released her Vroom Vroom EP featuring production from PC Music production powerhouses AG Cook and SOPHIE. On Number 1 Angel, Charli once again enlists AG Cook and SOPHIE along with a handful of other producers from the PC Music label and beyond to serve up a sweet, spicy and luxuriantly angelic smorgasbord of pop hits.
The album opens and closes on hard-hitters. On album opener “Dreamer,” featuring Starrah and Raye, Charli lays down an infectious hook and disappears to leave Starrah and Raye to play off of one another in the depths of AG Cook’s booming production. Album closer “Lipgloss,” on the other hand begins with dizzyingly sweet production and gentle innuendo. It isn’t until Cupcakke’s (surprisingly tame) verses that innuendo is ditched for explicitness and the buzzing production crystallizes into something much subtler and bolder.
Number 1 Angel’s initial and final displays of bravado serve more to build a hardened shell for the album’s silky, lovestruck interior than they do to parallel it. Moving from radio-ready teen movie infatuation anthem “Emotional” to the high energy pop ballad theatrics of “ILY2” without missing a beat, Charli’s solo tracks make up the emotional heart of the album without ever losing the spunk of its collaborations. Each track features a wildly different production style and set of emotions tangential to love. Charli dominates each new terrain with finesse and grace.
“Roll With Me,” produced by SOPHIE, showcases the producer’s signature jittery, pitched-up production style among Charli’s dazed club-centered lyrics. Between Charli’s pleas (“Do you want to roll with me, say yeah?”) and her romanticism (“Your touch got me off the ground, it’s like we’re living in a daydream”), SOPHIE is granted space to build his own chaos as he plays with pitch and percussion. Perhaps the reason this song works so well is that it’s simultaneously a solo song and a collaboration. Charli has no other featured vocalists to share her metaphorical halo with. One hundred percent of the attention is on her. Yet, the production detaches itself from the background and becomes a key player in Charli’s dreamy club scene.
AG Cook-produced “White Roses” is the mixtape’s most vulnerable track. Cook builds subtle, heavenly flourishes on smooth sensual synth textures to frame Charli’s romantic pining. Charli’s breathy, innocent vocals are convincing enough to preserve belief in the absolute romantic purity presented in the track. On Cook’s end, the production is just warped enough to showcase Charli’s desperately romantic lyrics (“love is like a rose, baby let it grow / No one knows the secrets that you know”) without making them sound cloying and just human enough to keep the track from sounding harshly disjointed.
Charli XCX’s artistic development has always been based in the recognition that in pop music, style is always more important than substance. While her work has been thematically quite constant since her debut with 2012’s Super Ultra mixtape with a healthy mix of sex, romance, drugs and girl power on each release, with each new album and mixtape Charli has subtly reestablished her artistry and image to remain breezily on the cutting edge of pop music. Her evolution from glitch art-era Tumblr user (“Nuclear Seasons”) to PC Music collaborator angel has been slow, steady and seamless. With an album and enough additional material up her sleeve for two more mixtapes, Charli has left no clear indication to her artistic trajectory but an implicit promise that it will fall along the pathway of ascent to popstar heaven.
Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected].