A mixtape can be many things: a pean to a mood, a compilation of hits, an ode to an ex. But in the right hands, the mixtape becomes high art. Charli XCX released two mixtapes in 2017, establishing herself as the champion of curation. Her introductory note to fans upon the release of Pop 2 in December summed up her intention with this collection: “I was so lost for a while with who I was … fuck playing the game.”
Playing the game had gotten Charli some big hit singles over the years, but record company politics, and their expectations of how 21st century pop should sound, stymied her from becoming a big radio and streaming star. Signed at just age 18 after giving away free mixtapes on Tumblr, Charli instantly found success writing of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in addition to her own massive hit “Boom Clap.” Charli could have continued to craft an industry-approved image and zoomed right up the charts by crafting similar songs. But she didn’t want to go that route.
On Pop 2, Charli is freed from the constraints of pop music and she uses the mixtape to give a huge platform fascinating artists who certainly are not getting radio play. Her collaborators include a rapper named cupcakKe who is famous for dirty viral tracks “Vagina” and “Deepthroat,” German trans singer Kim Petras, Brazilian drag queen and internet sensation Pabllo Vittar, performance artist and darling of queer feminists and libertarians Dorian Electra, and Estonian rapper MC Tommy Cash, a cult hero with a backstory that seems carved from a rejected Marvel comic book (he claims to have been conceived in a Kazakhstan laboratory after a scientist mixed semen with chemical waste.) Oh and also Carly Rae Jepsen.
As for the music that Charli XCX curated with this crew, it’s a mind-bending combination of styles like dance pop, metal, dubstep, EDM, and rap, with all sorts of curious sounds. Rather than sounding like a mishmash of junk, the skillful production pushes boundaries in a sonically pleasing way. It’s cool to do mixtapes in modern music, but Charli puts everyone else on blast. “Go fuck your prototype/I’m an upgrade of your stereotype,” she says on the track Femmebot. Critics have often tried to portray Charli as a studio-created robot, but she thoroughly rejects the critique, doubling down on the artistry of auto tune, with a dizzying array of voice modulation and sound effects.
Charli upgrades the idea of the mixtape by letting her collaborators mix and mingle. On the club banger “Out of My Head,” she lets Finnish gothers ALMA and Swedish dark pop queen Tove Lo take center stage. The effects are mesmerizing and beguiling, as the various songs sometimes careen to a sudden halt, switching rhythm or embracing silence. Charli XCX say she might never make another full album, but Pop 2 will be deconstructed for a decade. Pop 2 is not for everyone, but if electronic music is your bag, then you’ll fall in love with its sound.