To digest a magnum opus like Charli, you really do have to start at the very beginning.
The opener to the self-titled record — her first studio album in half a decade — titled "Next Level Charli," acts as a mission statement, scrawled in silver sparkle gel pen across a piece of platinum parchment: "I go hard, I go fast, and I never look back/ I go speedin' on the highway, burn rubber, no crash." It's a sentiment that's she's written and rewritten throughout her career. Her sound is ever-updating and ever-influenced, as evidenced in the allusion to her never-to-be-released SOPHIE collab, "Burn Rubber," in only the second line of the album opener. Since 2014's Sucker, Charli's literally been speeding through a rolodex of pop movements, counterpoints, and indulgences on each EP, mixtape, and single she's released. "Next Level Charli" is full of references to the time period between studio album releases, concerning herself, her unreleased material, her collaborators, and her fans. She lets out tonal yelps of both intent and invitation on top of the weighty synths, ready for an RSVP from you, the listener, to her never-ending afterparty.
An afterparty is exactly what the record sounds like after all is sung and done. Charli XCX takes her Angels on a stimulant-propelled journey to the back of the bar for last call, introducing them briefly to all of her friends along the way. With features from '10s alt-pop harbingers to of-the-moment cool kids and underground producers, the listener meets an entire choir of compelling voices on the album, all in conversation with Charli's experimental digi-pop sensibility.
When put up next to songs from Charli's previous studio albums, Sucker and True Romance, the tracks on Charli effectively become part of a collection of glitches in the pop mainframe. In this case, form really does follow function when it comes to the production of the record. On a record unafraid of silence, quick cuts and jumps in sound become regular occurrences, as do warped outros and conflicting keys; "Click," which features bubblegum-pop princess Kim Petras and Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, quite literally glitches throughout.
Prior to Petras' verse on "Click" — which shines as possibly the most bombastic 60 seconds in her discography to date — a series of her recognizable "woo" sounds build up to a satisfying terminus: an "ah" and a deep supporting kick and ring. The anticipation is brief, but it's one of the most exciting climaxes of the entire record, cushioned by a question of silence and torn to shreds by a mind-bending drum sample. Her verse is blazing and breathless, backed by 808s that gain in velocity with the emphasis of each brag: "Bunch of bad bitches in my clique, we on a roll, yeah/ Kim Possible off in this bitch, now watch me go off!"
Then arrives what many writers have attempted to describe, but ultimately have summed up as a go-listen-for-yourself moment: the metal-gargling, engine-malfunctioning, shell casing-clinking outro. It's uncomfortable and restricting on top of being nearly painful if your volume's turned up loud enough, but it's a glorious new genre of asphyxia.
The radio-ready mega hits ("1999," "Blame It On Your Love") coexist alongside these abrasive club cuts, as well as the tenuous and intimate love letters ("Warm," "Official"). It's a testament that Charli's genius lies not in any singular set of lyrics or production element, but in her ability to build an entire world within a project. She's not the "future" of pop music, nor is she its "savior" — she's pop's star student, and Charli is her valedictorian speech.
To get a better understanding of just how much work went into each one of the 15 tracks on the album, PAPER sat down with Charli XCX for a track-by-track discussion.
1. "Next Level Charli"
"Next Level Charli" is a perfect place to start, it's like opening up a storybook and reading the introduction. I want to hear your take on writing that intro track.
"Next Level Charli," I guess, is the only song where I actually wasn't just thinking about myself. It's a song I wrote for the Angels. Before I started writing it, I knew. I was like, "I want this to be a song for my fans, about them getting ready to go out to one of my shows." You know? Or to a party. I envisioned that I was there, or maybe we're all going out together. It's that song you put on when you're going to the club, or going to the house party.
Yeah, the pregame.
You're in the group chat.
Yeah! That song is really about that, and I just wanted to capture that essence and that excitement that you sometimes have before a night out.
2. "Gone" with Christine and the Queens
Let's go into "Gone." Absolutely the perfect follow-up, in a way, because there are two conflicting sounds on the record; there's this bass-heavy glitch-pop sound, but there's also a very heavy synth-pop sound. Talk to me about getting Chris to work on "Gone."
Well, Chris and I knew that we wanted to work on something together. We'd been kind of talking back and forth about music, but also about life, getting to know each other as people. I just felt immediately so comfortable around her. Within a day of just texting with her, I was like, "This person is my friend!" It was really cool and sweet, I felt this immediate kinship with her. When I was in Stockholm at the beginning of the year, I was writing ideas for the album and honestly I had the worst writer's block and so did the people I was working with. We literally made maybe 10 unfinished, really bad songs. We could not write a good song. They were all so bad! Then we came up with the idea for "Gone," and we were like, "Wait, this is actually good. Let's not ruin it! We can't ruin it."
"Everyone step back!"
Yeah, because we couldn't figure out a chorus. I was like, "Okay, let's not push this to the point where we hate the song because we can't figure out the chorus — I'm going send it to Chris, I feel like she would understand this beat and connect with it." I sent it to her and 15 minutes later she sent me back this chorus idea with the melody and lyrics. I was like, "Fuck! This is so good." That's how it began, really. We just kind of back-and-forth'd about the lyrics and how to finish the song. That's how it happened!
And then the dance break at the end — just tell me, how did that come about?
Well, so we wrote the song and then I sent it to A.G. and Nomak. I was like, "Okay, do you like this song? Do your thing with it. I want it to elevate even more." They sent it back to me, and I remember: I was in LA, I think they were in LA, too, and they sent it back to me. It was 3 AM, I was in my house, and I put it on in my headphones and I must've listened to that song until 4:30 in the morning on repeat, over and over and over again listening to that dance break. I was like, "This is A.G.'s best production. One-hundred percent, no doubt, this is the best."=
3. "Cross You Out (feat. Sky Ferreira)"
I want to know about how you got Sky to work on this. My editor loves that V cover [of you, Sky, and Grimes]. Were you in contact that whole time in between, or was this more recently?
Yeah, we've been in contact on and off. I knew Sky before the V shoot we did, too. We kind of knew each other through MySpace, and then we were working with a lot of the same people on my album, True Romance, and her album, Night Time, My Time. There was a lot of crossover with our collaborators. Then the V thing happened and she came to a house party at my house a while ago, and we caught up. We've always just been aware and around each other.
Same pop world.
Totally, and we've known each other and I've always really respected what she's doing. There was a point where we were talking about writing this t.A.T.u.-esque song and it never happened. When I had the initial idea for "Cross You Out," it kind of felt to me like something that could have been on either Night Time, My Time or True Romance. That fuzzy-warm bass sound, that really heavy weight and emotion. It kind of felt like something that both of us could relate to. So I sent it to her and she was into it. She came to the studio in LA to record her part, I actually wasn't there when she did her writing. It was one of the first collaborations that I worked on for the album. She was kind of in the middle of releasing her song, "Downhill Lullaby," and in her process. There was a bit of silence for a while, and I was like, "Oh no, does she not like it? I fucked up, I can't believe it." I think it's kind of rare. Sky, she doesn't do a lot of features.
She's very selective.
I was immediately so honored that she wanted to do something with me because it felt just really special. She's a really special artist with a unique and particular vision. The fact that I had gotten that far, I was like, "Oh my god, I hope this doesn't go away and I hope she doesn't change her mind because she's so good." Then, she came back and was like, "Oh, I love it. Let's go, let's do it." I was like, "Oh, thank god, amazing!" Then, we shot the artwork. It all kind of flowed.
4. "1999" with Troye Sivan
"1999" has been out for almost a year now. How did it begin?
I had the idea for the music video for that song first. I needed a song to go with it, I was like, "I want to do a video where I play lots of different characters from the 90s." Then, I needed a song. So I was like, "Let's do something themed around 1999." I was working with Oscar Holter and Noonie Bao, who are two people I love. We collaborate a lot. We were working at Max Martin's compound studio or whatever, so it felt weirdly fitting to be writing a song about 1999 in Max Martin's studio house, because he's still pop king, but the '90s was his fucking era. Britney, The Backstreet Boys, just constant. We wrote this song, and Oscar called him and played it to him. [Martin] was the person who came up with the idea of, "You should say, 'I just want to go back, sing hit me baby one more time,'" which is really funny. He came up with that lyric, he wrote "...Baby One More Time," and it also came out in 1999. He's the king of how meta and amazing it is. It was written all there, then I sent it to Troye and was like, "Do you want to jump on a verse? We need to write you a bridge." So he did that, we weren't in the room together. He did that in LA whilst I was in Miami.
5. "Click (feat. Kim Petras and Tommy Cash)"
Next is the pinnacle, for me, of Charli.
Is it your favorite?
I mean, I've listened to it so many times since I got it. It's like I'm in a wormhole of "Click." There's something so earworm-y about it. I want to know where that started as well, and then I'd love to hear how you feel about Kim's verse.
So that song started in New York, actually. What's funny about it is that it's crack Charli. It's like Charli on crack. It's next-level, burn-your-house-down. It's me, it's A.G., umru, Dylan Brady, Nomak, Kim, Tommy. It's all of these people who are all really extra. Not necessarily in our personality — me, Kim, and Tommy definitely — but in the work that we make, we're all [Boom sound effect], no sacrifices, don't care about the consequences, guns blazing. The song is fucking mad. It's full mania. I think fans knew that it would be because of the production credits and the artists who were on it. I think this might be "Vroom Vroom" part two, possibly. It feels like it could be going that way.
I'm excited to see the live show reaction.
Right? I feel like it's really going to go off. I started that song in New York at umru's apartment. It's funny because we were recording at midnight and he has this sound curfew because he lives in an apartment building or whatever so he can't play his speakers really loud. We were recording this really hype song super quietly on iPhone headphones. I couldn't be hype, I was really quiet. It was really confusing. Then I took it to LA, I did a verse. I was like, "Kim, hey, what's up? Want to do this thing?" She was like, "Yes, let's go!" She sent me back her verse and I was like, "Oh my god. I'm embarrassing on this song because her verse is so good." I sent it to Tommy, as well. It took him a while because he was doing a whole exhibition with Rick Owens because Tommy's on another level. He's on some other shit. He came, his verse was amazing, I was like, "Fuck. I'm bombing on this song right now so hard." I redid my verse and sent it back to them and they said, "Oh, you changed your verse?" Yeah, of course I did. I was crucified by them. Kim's verse, she went there. Not to compare them directly, because obviously they are hugely different artists and these are two hugely different songs doing hugely different things. I don't want to have people being like, "You said she's like this person," they're very different — but the feeling that I get from Kim's verse is the feeling I get when I listen to Nicki Minaj's verse on "Monster."
I was just going to say it, I didn't want to insult you!
Totally, that was the exact feeling I got. "She's killing me right now, but I don't care." I mean, still! Very different verses, very different artists — I can't stress that enough — but the level of hype and energy she can bring.
I think it is a really defining 60 seconds or so.
I agree. Kim came through. For fuck's sake, fuck her!
6. "Warm (feat. HAIM)"
My other favorite song is "Warm" with HAIM. To me, it does sound very in-conversation with "TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME." There's a lot of similarity just in vibe.
I reference "TOOTIME" in it, in the lyrics. I knew it would get that comparison. It was funny because A.G. had sent me that beat actually a long time ago when I was on tour way before we thought about getting in the studio together. I'd been listening to it, and he'd done a melody over it. I love it when A.G. sings, it's so beautiful. He was just singing melodies, and I put lyrics to it over time. Then, "TOOTIME" came out. I love The 1975 so much, and it was kind of cool because I was like, "Should I reference this?" It was cool, I love that band so much. The song is just about a player.
Can you talk to me about the intimacy embedded in "Thoughts?"
I think that was one of the most spontaneously recorded songs. We recorded that at Flume's studio in LA and it was at a point where I felt like I was being pulled in a million different directions. All I wanted to do was record, but I was getting asked to go to a different country and do this and do that, to do a million things. I was partying a lot, I was in LA a lot, I was feeling my anxiety a lot. I was looking around me and seeing all of these friends who are true friends in real life, but when I've been alone or depressed I've been like, "Wait. You're my friend, but I'm working with you. Are you really my friend? But you're on payroll..." I've known these people since I was 11, but I was like, "Am I this clicée? Am I living in Hollywood, in the Hills, with a load of people who I'm paying?" I felt that for a second. I was so deep in that. I got off this phone call and A.G. was playing these four chords on repeat, and I was like, "I have it!" It might sound cheesy, but I was just like, "Let me at the microphone!" I sang all this shit and it really just happened, it actually happened like that. I do a lot of freestyling, but I don't do a lot of freestyling where the lyrics come at the same time. Most of the lyrics came within that first vocal take. That song feels very immediate and personal to me.
8. "Blame It On Your Love (feat. Lizzo)"
"Blame It On Your Love" was actually the original "Track 10."
There's been a lot of press around it, can you tell me something I might not know about the making of that track?
The thing is: you know everything. It's been around for fucking ever in my life. That song has been around for four or five years. It was supposed to be on Pop 2 in its original format, but I was just like, "It doesn't feel right." I got A.G. to make a version and then I re-sang it, and the song didn't feel right until Lizzo was on it.
9. "White Mercedes"
"White Mercedes" is stadium-pop. It's so anthemic. What about a white Mercedes catapulted it? Or was it random?
It was random! It was, actually. Obviously I like cars, and the song is about me moving too fast and burning through this relationship and throwing it all away. Then, coming back to it and being this annoying, hectic person. Cars are fast and I move fast. Boom! Another car moment.
10. "Silver Cross"
"Silver Cross" is actually a huge bop, as well. That's one of the ones I haven't had as much time to digest yet. Why did you expect it to be a fan favorite? I saw you saying that online.
I played it to friends and they were really amped about "Silver Cross." A.G. was really amped about it, and he often has the same taste as the fans have. A.G. really believed in it and a couple of my other friends were like, "This is our favorite." It just feels like a really emotional club banger. I think people think it's about love, but it's actually about taking a friend out for a night out when they need to forget someone. Like when your friend is really sad and you just need to be there for them and take them out and escape with them. Make them forget their troubles. That's actually what "Silver Cross" is about. It's about friendship and helping them when they need you most.
11. "I Don't Wanna Know"
I think "I Don't Wanna Know" is more intimate than "Thoughts." It's a very emotional song.
"I Don't Wanna Know," that's the oldest song that's on the album. Two, maybe three years ago, I texted [A.G.] and was like, "Hey, let's try and make an album in a day." He was like, "What?" I was like, "Yeah, tomorrow I'll just come over and we'll make an album in 24 hours." I went to his studio and we made this nine-track album from noon til 6 AM the next day. The last song that we made was "I Don't Wanna Know" at literally 5 AM. All those vocals — that's why. I mean, it's high, but my voice is like, "Ahhh!" We were delirious, and we wrote it so fast. We were so tired. What's funny is that we had written "I Got It" right before it.
What a transition!
"I Got It" and "I Don't Wanna Know" were two songs from this album-in-a-day experiment we did. It was cool.
"Official" is just so pulsating and beautiful — showstopping, brilliant, never been done before.
[Laughs] I saw that video today!
I see it every day.
I love it.
"Official" is abrasive, in a sense, with the synths. Can you talk to me about the uncomfortable-ness that exists?"
"Official" is the song that I feel the least confident talking about. I just feel nervous about it, probably because it's the biggest leap for me, I think, as an artist. I don't think I've ever done a song like "Official" before. I thought people would hate it. I was like, "A.G., we cannot put this on the album. People are not going to like this song, they're going to be like, 'Why is she doing that?'" He really fought for it, so you have A.G. Cook to thank for this song being on the album. He really pushed me to put it on there. It's his doing. It feels like people do want that emotion from me.
13. "Shake It (feat. Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar)"
"Shake It." Oof.
Another fan favorite, it seems!
I was reading that you had said "Shake It" was like "I Got It" part two. It really doesn't feel like that.
It feels like something entirely new. It really does feel like each person is doing their own song.
Totally. I wanted "I Got It" part two in the sense that I wanted CupcakKe, Brooke, and Pabllo on a track. I wanted another person as well, so that's how Big Freedia came into the mix. With "Shake It," we wanted to do a song where I wasn't really on it. We just thought it'd be funny. Who put a song on their album that they're not on? No one. It's so stupid, why would you do that, but we were like, "Let's do that! Sounds like a dumb enough idea for me to do." Also, I really love these artists and I wanted them to have their moment to shine. I could never do what they do, I could never go as hard as Big Freedia or CupcakKe or Brooke.
I know, it's insane. She's fucking undeniable. I just wanted this song for them, and also, it was fun for me to become this machine. It's not even a chorus. It's just a pulse through the song.
14. "February 2017 (feat. Clairo and Yaeji)"
"February 2017" is one of the more tenuous songs. It leaves you wanting more of it. The duet with Clairo, the outro — it's soaring. How did that get constructed? It feels untraditional.
It is. Clairo and I actually spent four days making a load of songs together in LA. We ended up using none of them. We ended up writing a song apart, but we have just four or five songs now that are just kind of half done, floating around. We knew we'd want to do something together, and I've been such a fan of Yaeji for a really long time. I think they vaguely knew each other. It just made sense for us to do something together. I put us on a group chat, or maybe I texted them separately. I was like, "Let's do this, I'm going to gather some ideas." I made this initial thing, and [they] sang over it. We had all the pieces, but we just needed to arrange it in the right way. It does definitely leave people wanting more. It's one of the shortest songs, no parts repeat really. It definitely doesn't have a traditional song structure, but they're both really open-minded and free in the way they make their own music. It didn't really feel like it mattered.
It was more of a collage.
Totally, and Yaeji's part right at the end, for me, is one of the most intimate moments on the album. It really sucks me in and I feel really close to her. It's really beautiful and I'm happy that song happened.
I am too. Clairo's album is so good, I —
It's so good. It's so, so good. I'm obsessed, I stan "Sofia." It's one of her best songs.
15. "2099 (feat. Troye Sivan)"
"2099" really does feel like a finale in the context of the album. As a single, I was like, "Oh my god this is beautiful," but after listening to the album straight through, you hear it in a whole new way. Was that intentional, putting it at the end?
I think the outro of the song is so over-the-top and aggressive. It just really feels like you're taking off into space at the end. So yes, but also because this whole campaign started with "1999." It felt kind of poetic, I suppose, to end on "2099" with Troye, going to the future, different year. I guess it's the most conceptual decision I had made. It's funny because I don't really do that. You can read into it as much as you want, but also if you don't want to, it's fine.
Photo courtesy of Marcus Cooper