Acoustic Sounds

Charli XCX

Pop 2



Charlie XCX

Label: Asylum / Atlantic

Produced By: PC Music et al

Mixed By: Geoff Swan at The Nest

Mastered By: Stuart Hawkes at Metropolis

Lacquers Cut By: Stuart Hawkes at Metropolis

By: Malachi Lui

August 11th, 2023



Charli XCX’s Futurism From The Past

Reissued five years later, ‘Pop 2’ plays like a celebration of the pop future that never happened

What is pop music? A never-ending cycle of repackaging the past? Or a portal to infinite possibilities? High art, or insipid, assembly-line bubblegum confections? What if it’s all of the above?

Charli XCX’s 2017 mixtape Pop 2 decides that pop music can be anything and everything—or at least, that’s the meaning that many have assigned to it. After her prospective third studio album proved too much a logistical hurdle to release (only for all the tracks to leak), within a year Charli churned out two looser, more casual mixtapes. The first, Number 1 Angel, found an artist trapped between her previous sound—giant pop anthems that sound like bigger hits than they actually were—and her future, the bubblegum bass of PC Music and orbiting figures like SOPHIE. The second mixtape, Pop 2, showed a fully reinvented Charli XCX as the pop star curating the future. Not just her musical future, but presumably that of pop music at large.

In 2016, Charli released the SOPHIE-produced Vroom Vroom EP, 12 minutes of off-the-walls bubblegum bass. Despite the divided critical response, she went further in that direction and worked extensively with A.G. Cook, founder of London-based label and artistic collective PC Music, and associated producers like EasyFun, umru, Ö, and Lil Data. PC Music initially served as an ironic spoof on glossy, superficial, brand-focused electropop; more conceptual art project than listenable music (try listening to GFOTY without rolling your eyes), but the style held potential. Charli took most of the irony out of it, using the collective’s hyper-synthetic sounds not as the past, or the past vision of the future, but as the current future of pop music. December 2017’s Pop 2 cohered Charli and PC Music’s freewheeling energy into a defined vision, a mission statement for their future work. Now reissued five and a half years later, Pop 2 plays like a celebration of the pop future that never happened, an ode to possibilities unfulfilled.

Pop 2 finds a heavily autotuned Charli moving between heartbreak and party modes, with Cook et al’s work always spacious and dynamic. “I can’t escape all the voices and so I turn it up,” concludes her first verse on opener “Backseat,” at which point Cook and EasyFun’s production goes from subtle drums and expansive bass to a pulsing synth line, ending in glitched-out mania. The efficacy of Charli’s music is that she focuses on and amplifies emotions, making something small feel big; Pop 2’s production especially highlights this, with its grand shifts and use of contrast against negative space. “Out Of My Head,” the only SOPHIE production here, sounds conventional but in its bareness is subtly eccentric, utilizing only one synth and a drum pattern that sounds busier than it actually is. Charli’s autotuned vocals—whether she’s singing, rapping, or wordlessly using her voice like a synthesizer—are so melodically and rhythmically rich that they fill up the otherwise compositionally minimal songs.

Time has exposed Pop 2’s inconsistency. The lyrics are unvarnished and therefore not as strong as on some of her other records, but it provides a rougher counterpoint to the production. “Delicious” feels a bit redundant, and the raunchy “I Got It” gets annoying after a while. More than any other Charli XCX project, it’s incredibly guest-heavy to where the features can sometimes make or break a song. “Femmebot” is fun until Mykki Blanco’s out-of-place clunker of a verse, whereas Caroline Polachek integrates perfectly on “Tears.” Still, the curation is generally seamless—Charli draws the best out of everyone here, even those who I otherwise despise or find mediocre—but the two songs where she’s vocally alone are some of the mixtape’s most affecting moments. “Lucky” is a stripped-down, lonely autotune ballad, while “Track 10”’s emotional vocal performance and simple but vulnerable lyrics about a turbulent relationship makes it possibly the best song in her discography. It’s intimate yet massive, the production moving from light electronic twinkling to enveloping synths that build up to a thick layer of more synths and distorted drums. It is without a doubt one of the best moments in the last decade of music.

Some of these sonic ideas were better incorporated on 2019's more formal Charli, and her place in the pop zeitgeist fully cemented on 2020's pandemic album how i'm feeling now, but Pop 2 remains her most (relatively) cohesive statement of that era. Yet what Charli and the producers accomplished here extends beyond just this record or her and PC Music’s discography; the way it turned this sound into something accessible, even if not chart-topping, led to hyperpop, the type of digitally blown-out pop that started with 100 gecs’ 2019 debut album, continued with a bunch of whiny terminally online kids, and quickly died when pandemic restrictions lifted. Charli became the mainstream figurehead of hyperpop, her vision of the future finally vindicated, though its rapid growth and resulting dilution killed it just as fast as it started. (The brilliant SOPHIE's 2021 death, right as she seemed on the verge of world takeover, was another factor in this whole set of genres fizzling out.) Perhaps that’s why Charli's last LP Crash found her attempting to be a generic big pop star, because staying in the realm of bubblegum bass or hyperpop would be beating a dead horse. PC Music is also realizing this, as Cook plans for the label to stop releasing new music after this year. Was Pop 2 the complete revolution of pop music it tried to be? No, but was it a step forward? Absolutely yes. Now that pop is in a post-pandemic stasis with little hint at a genuinely new direction, one can't help but wonder if the bubblegum bass and hyperpop explosion was the last significant makeover we'll see for a while.

First released on vinyl in a “twofer” with Number 1 Angel, Pop 2 needed a repress anyway: the original twofer hardly sold, fell out of print, and now commands around $200 for an official copy. Yet there’s a bittersweet irony to this shiny Pop 2 anniversary reissue; sure, things get reissued all the time, but only five (and a half) years after its release, we’re already commemorating something so recently influential and forward-thinking as a relic of the past. Has Charli XCX given up on the future? Have the rest of us given up now as well?

That said, Charli XCX is one artist who consistently sounds good on vinyl and this is no exception. The actual record is a repress of the original metal parts from the twofer, digitally mastered and cut by Stuart Hawkes at Metropolis and pressed at Optimal. The midrange is richer and the highs less abrasive than the digital edition, which in some ways makes for a better listen but also makes the production sound more “real” than maybe it should. Some light surface noise, especially on side one, but nothing awful. It’ll probably be my preferred way to listen from now on. The 5th anniversary edition comes in an embossed mirrorboard jacket (which by Charli’s own admission is impossible to take a decent photo of) with the translucent purple record housed in a clear plastic (not PVC, thankfully) inner sleeve with the tracklist printed on it. There’s also a massive (24x36”) double-sided poster with the tracklist and original cover photo, except the picture’s in black and white. Totally unnecessary, and I would’ve taken it without the poster for $10 less, but I guess it was an excuse to price it at $35 since Warner Music knew everyone wanted it. Price gouging aside, it’s good that Pop 2 is back in print on vinyl.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 5054197487170

Pressing Plant: Optimal Media

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: Digital Master

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2023-08-16 01:09:23 AM

    Matt wrote:

    Thanks for this Malachi - mayyyybe my favourite album of the last ten years, the mix of hyperproduction, exquisite taste in collaborations ("Femmebot" aside, agreed!) and her transformative emotion and connection make this a blinding success. So many tiny touches on this are astonishing - the wordless screams backing "Tears", the Future-like leaning into autotune on "Lucky" and "Track 10", Cupcakke and Pablo Vittar brandishing their verses like knives, even the dropouts on the line "you're breaking up", it's such a pleasure and a holocaust of a record. I guess there was no way she could sustain this level (altho parts of "Charli" and HIFN are up there too) but this will always be, like the title says, the next gen of pop for me. I'll be glad to pick up a physical copy, even lossless digital took an age to track down. PS: if "I Got It" drags, the solution is to TURN IT UP.