Charli XCX sends us to 2099 with ‘Charli’, but she had to build a time machine first.

The censored cover of Charli XCX's third studio album, 'Charli'. The uncensored version features Charli's entire upper body with purple body art covering her breasts.

Asylum Records, Atlantic Records UK

The censored cover of Charli XCX's third studio album, 'Charli'. The uncensored version features Charli's entire upper body with purple body art covering her breasts.

Mason Montano, Music Editor

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Prologue: “XCX World”

Back in 2014, English singer-songwriter Charli XCX was on top of the world. She had two massively successful singles, “Boom Clap” and “Break the Rules”, from her, then recently released, sophomore album, Sucker, and featured on two even bigger hits, “I Love It” with Swedish pop duo Icona Pop and “Fancy” with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea.

In spite of her success, however, Charli wasn’t satisfied with her work, as she wanted to make music that sounded more “pop” as opposed to the punk rock-inspired sound of Sucker. It was then she discovered PC Music, a record label based in London known for its futuristic approach to pop music, which became the main inspiration for her new era. She befriended label founder, A.G. Cook, who got Scottish producer SOPHIE involved, and after enlisting the help of American producer BloodPop and Norwegian producer collective StarGate for additional production, the trio immediately set to work on Charli’s next project.

Work began in 2015, with Charli describing the project as “the most pop…and the most electronic thing” she had ever done. In February 2016, she released an experimental EP produced almost entirely by SOPHIE called Vroom Vroom as a sneak peek of her forthcoming album. Her fans absolutely loved it, and the general excitement surrounding the EP, paired with Charli performing new tracks live, resulted in intense hype for the album growing within her fanbase.

Vroom Vroom was followed by “After the Afterparty”, a collaboration with American rapper Lil Yachty and the lead single from her third album, in October. A free mixtape serving as a prelude to the album called Number 1 Angel was released in March 2017, and the album’s second single, “Boys”, dropped that June. Everything appeared to be going smoothly, as “Boys” became the song of the summer, but all was not well behind the scenes. 

Charli’s labels, Asylum and Atlantic UK, were apprehensive about the new era, as Vroom Vroom was met with mixed reviews due to its heavy electronic sound. In fact, she originally released the EP independently through her own label, Vroom Vroom Recordings, which she established in order to bypass her main labels’ refusal to let her release it through them.

The underperformance of “After the Afterparty” and an extremely negative reaction to her Jimmy Kimmel performance of a previously unreleased track called “Bounce” in February 2017 worried Asylum and Atlantic even more. They weren’t convinced she could bring in the same numbers she did two years prior, and these creative differences resulted in the album getting delayed several times throughout 2016 and 2017. 

Fortunately, the positive reception of Number 1 Angel and “Boys” restored some of their faith in her, so they went ahead and gave Charli the “OK” for release and confirmed the album would be released in September 2017 — but then tragedy struck.

On August 20, 2017, Charli’s Google Drive was hacked and a career’s worth of unreleased songs and demos were leaked online, including the entirety of her third studio album. The album, which still lacked a title, was dubbed “XCX World” by her fans, who quickly began spreading the leaks all across the internet.

The hype had reached its climax, and while fans had a ball with the music, Charli was shocked and horrified to discover that nearly two years of hard work had gone public before it was ready. Feeling vulnerable, discouraged, and as if her art no longer belonged to her, she decided to scrap the entire project in favor of starting over with fresh material.

This decision, although necessary for her mental health and well-being at the time, would generate tension between Charli and her fanbase, the remnants of which can still be seen today on social media, with the most prominent ongoing feud revolving around a song called “Taxi”, which fans have begged her to release since its live debut in late 2016.

Even though the album was scrapped, several tracks originally intended for “XCX World”, were eventually released. “No Angel” and “Girls Night Out” dropped in summer 2018 as part of a series of standalone singles, and another song, “Glow”, was reworked into “Dream Glow”, a collaboration with Korean idol group BTS that appeared on the soundtrack for their mobile game, BTS WORLD, in June 2019. Other tracks, like “Bounce” and “Taxi”, have yet to see the light of day, and despite demands from fans, it’s unlikely they or any more tracks from the era ever will. 

RIP XCX World.

“1999”: The time machine.

To make up for the cancellation, Charli dropped the POP2 mixtape in December 2017 as a follow-up to Number 1 Angel. Despite its release occurring rather suddenly, POP2 was met with universal acclaim from both critics and fans alike, who praised its futuristic and experimental sound, which I found funny considering how much critics hated Vroom Vroom only one year prior.

Anyways, the project’s futuristic sound set the tone for the rest of Charli’s discography, and throughout 2018, she released several standalone singles that were very much in line with the world of POP2, including “5 in the Morning” and “Focus”.

In October, she released “1999”, a house-inspired bop about late-90’s nostalgia and a collaboration with Australian singer Troye Sivan. At first, the track was slow to gain popularity, but by December, it had reached #13 on the U.K. Singles Chart as well as #18 in Australia.

While she initially planned to release a third mixtape to complete the trilogy, “1999”‘s moderate success in the U.K. and Australia got the attention of Asylum and Atlantic, who decided to give Charli another shot at an album. In January, she confirmed she was working on her third album due for release later in the year, and while originally intended to be a standalone track, “1999” became its lead single.

Charli: The future.

Charli’s self-titled third studio album was formally announced in mid-June, along with her first headlining world tour, the Charli Live Tour, with a release date set for September 13, 2019. After four years of delays, leaks, and rebranding; Charli XCX’s third album finally arrived.

Charli is a triumphant body of work that showcases her growth as an artist. It’s also her most personal album to date, hence why she chose to appear nude on the cover, as she wanted to reflect that vulnerability. 

She’s no longer worried about trying to make a hit record anymore. All she wants is to be herself and to make the music she loves, regardless of what the mainstream expects from her. Charli represents her freedom.

The album’s triumphant theme is reflected on the opening track, “Next Level Charli”, a self-empowerment anthem that sees Charli owning who she is and loving herself for it. 

The vulnerability can be found on the third single, “Gone” with French singer-songwriter Christine and the Queens, on which the duo lament about their insecurities and feeling isolated over a heavy electronic beat, creating a juxtaposition between the serious lyrics and the upbeat instrumental. 

The music video is a metaphor for how women are sexualized by society and put on display by the media, with Charli and Chris freeing themselves from being tied to a car in awkward positions.

Charli fits comfortably in the “post-POP2” sound that has defined her style, and similar to the aforementioned mixtape, the album was largely produced by A.G. Cook, with critics praising its innovative sound, calling it “futuristic” and “ahead of our time”.

The concept of “future” is repeated several times throughout the album, especially on the closing track, “2099” with Troye Sivan. The sequel to the more mainstream “1999”, “2099” is more experimental, with Charli describing the track as being “for the freaks”. The trippy, metallic quality of the production is the perfect way to end the album, sending the listener off into the future.

Charli XCX is the future of pop music. Charli is available now across all online and streaming platforms.

Stream Charli on Spotify:

Watch the music video for “Gone”:

Asylum Records, Atlantic Records UK
Charli and Christine in the music video for “Gone”.