Charli XCX, née Charlotte Aitchison, has built a career out of being a supporting player. The 22-year-old songstress originally made a name for herself in 2012, when she wrote and contributed vocals to Swedish synth-pop duo Icona Pop’s hit “I Love It.” She followed that up by co-writing and singing the mega-hook on the de facto Song Of The Summer, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” In the interim, she released her major label debut, True Romance, in 2013 to critical fanfare but an underwhelming commercial response. While the success of “Fancy” meant Charli was popping up on televisions, radios, and iPods around the world, she seems to have had trouble distinguishing herself from the wealth of competent pop stars dominating the charts; True Romance was an excellent pop album, but doesn’t stand too far apart from what you hear coming from someone like Katy Perry. This summer, Charli finally made it big with “Boom Clap,” a song she originally wrote for her next album but gifted to the twee-as-fuck teen romance The Fault In Our Stars. With her name popping up on year-end lists, Charli XCX seems primed to make the leap to full-blown pop idol with her excellent new studio album, Sucker.
A good rule of thumb that I just came up with is that a pop record is only as good as the first track. Sucker’s title song has a chorus where Charli chants “FUCK YOU, SUCKER” over and over, so you can do the math. From the moment the first beat kicks in, Sucker is right up in your fucking face. Word has it that when she decamped to Sweden to start writing the next record, Charli actually penned an entire punk album before discarding it and beginning work on what would eventually become Sucker. Even so, a devil-may-care attitude and gritty punk edge got carried over into the album. It’s sugary sweet with just the right amount of a nasty edge, like cotton candy with bits of glass in it. More than any pop album in recent memory, Sucker is a cohesive and balls-out fun record. Charli’s sassy personality bleeds through every facet of the album’s production, and she builds a tangible world, stuffed full of glitter, booze, grime, money, and mean girls. It’s hedonistic excess in all the right places.
A lot of what’s right about Sucker is due to Charli’s astute business savvy. Whether it’s the glittery polish shellacked over the record by producers Justin Raisen (Sky Ferreira) and Patrik Berger (Robyn, Lana Del Rey) or her chemistry-laden collaborations with Ariel Pink, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer), and Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend), Aitchison clearly knows how to surround herself with talent. The other half of what’s right about Sucker is what we already knew: Charli XCX has some serious songwriting chops. Every single cut on the album could be a single; they all wisely rest around the three-minute mark, so as not to overstay their welcome. Each track is a unexpected gut punch, packed with monster hooks and coyishly winking wordplay to make the maximum impact in the minimum amount of time.
Some of these tracks have been in the wild for a while now, but in the context of the album, they have had new life breathed into them. “Sucker” is a girl-power challenge to the fuccbois of the world and the closest the album comes to the glam-pop of True Romance. If “Fancy” cribbed the nineties Hollywood aesthetic of Clueless, “Break The Rules” borrows the ethos, as Charli glamorizes “going to the discotheque/ getting high and getting wrecked” over a gritty breakbeat and guitar pattern reminiscent of That One Blur Song Everyone Knows. Ariel Pink’s contribution, “London Queen,” is a coming-to-America story via the Ramones, replete with backing yells that could have come straight out of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The nouveau riche swagger of “Gold Coins” is greatly enhanced once you recognize that the snare hits are subtly backed by a sample of clinking cash–it’s “Royals” for that kid who moved out of the suburbs and hit it big. “Breaking Up” is a swaggering anthem to dumping that jagweed from the lacrosse team. “You had an ugly tattoo and fucking cheap perfume,” Charli snarls, and to be honest, fuck that guy. Of course, “Boom Clap” is the lynchpin here, a bridge between the punky upbeat tracks and the lush ballads. It smartly marries crooning verses with a sassy head-tossing hook in the chorus. Think Pixies by way of Blondie. It’s positioned right in the center of the album, the first breathing room after a claustrophobic, breakneck first half.
Then we get to the more adventurous stuff, where Charli really shows her range. “Doing It” is about exactly what you would expect, but that’s not even the most sexual stuff here; “Body of My Own” is a fantastic track out of left field, channeling early Madonna in both sound and spirit. There’s something refreshing and mildly scandalous about hearing a 22-year-old pop star sing so overtly about the benefits of masturbation. The breakdown after the second chorus is pure eighties pop bliss, with popcorn synth lines and cheeky orgasmic breathing low in the mix. Listening to “Hanging Around” (co-penned by Cuomo) is borderline painful, considering it’s a better Weezer song than anything they’ve put on an album since Maladroit. It’s impossible to not dance to “Famous,” which is buoyed by a razor sharp guitar lick and the most infectious chorus I’ve heard in ages. Every time she yelps “come-on-let’s-lose-con-trol-uh” in that thick English accent, I have the strangest desire for her to knock me down on the playground and rub dirt in my face. Uh, what is that?
All of which brings us to “Need Ur Love,” a drop-dead gorgeous number that, despite sounding like it wandered in from a different album, is the perfect capstone to Sucker. Guest producer Rostam Batmanglij brings the naturalistic, reverb-soaked touch he so deftly applied to Discovery’s LP and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, sucking all the bass out of Charli’s normally husky voice to craft a saccharine, fifties-esque doo-wop track. It’s the clear highlight of the album and has leapfrogged squarely into my personal top ten tracks list for this year. Is it a way forward for the ever-evolving Aitchison? Not likely, considering she told Time that her next album will draw heavily from J-pop and sound like “another planet up in the clouds” and “intensely weird and childlike.” In any event, it’s nice to see Charli XCX be able to step out of the shadow of her contemporaries and achieve greatness on her own terms.
Sucker is available now digitally, at your local record store and on the her website.