If you’ve been keeping up with the album rollout for Charli XCX’s latest album, “CRASH”, you’ll know that the fan reaction leading up to today has been “mixed” to say the least. The singer-songwriter and electropop enthusiast has always had some pushback with practically new project she’s released, but it usually dies down very quickly and reverts back to love once they get familiar with the new material. “CRASH”, however, has been filled with debate amongst fandom and even anticipation for a potential “flop era”. And that’s weird to say, because the album itself sounds like a very straightforward pop record, it should not be that controversial. But with every passing single, Charli’s fanbase and other listeners’s reactions has become more and more split with some even expecting a disappointment comparable to Lorde’s “Solar Power” or Katy Perry’s “Witness”.
If you’re not familiar with me, I should make my biases known and say I love Charli XCX. I found her critically acclaimed mixtape “Pop 2” the day it was released and was immediately in awe, it still is one of the most unique and refined projects I’ve ever heard. This and her other PC Music affiliated projects were the stepping stones I had into the genre now referred to as hyperpop, and I’m sure many other listeners of hers share a similar story. But it wasn’t just that it was experimental, a big part of why Charli’s music is so great is because it’s genuinely well crafted pop music by someone who clearly has a lot of love for the genre - the futuristic vision is just icing on the cake. Charli may not be the first person to make hyperpop, but her fantastic ear for larger than life pop music, catchy hooks, and great collaborators pulled the genre out of the internet and gave it a stage. She brought even more loving attention towards her with her self-titled LP and was one of the first artists to create and release an album during quarantine with 2020’s “how i’m feeling now”, which has proven to be one of the best albums released during that time. Charli’s world of pop combined the catchiest hooks imaginable with unique and maximalist style electronic production that ranges from fun to hard and twisted to outright avant-garde, and with the level of praise and recognition she’s built over the years and with the boom that hyperpop saw in 2020 and 2021, whatever Charli would do next was sure to catch everyone’s ear.
Which is why what she would eventually do next came off as surprising.
As she was teasing what she was working on next over the course of 2021, Charli kept making references to her next project being a “sellout” album. It was her last album with her major record label Atlantic, and she seemed to want to go out with a full blown unapologetic pop album. She made posts joking about selling her soul to her record label, she started talking about being less and less involved with the songwriting process and even went as far as to tweet “rip hyperpop”, seemingly confirming she was walking away from the sound that built her fanbase over the last six years. Obviously this was a risky move - Charli spent years making experimental pop music, this was she was most known for, and right as she’s become the biggest she’s ever been and with the genre she’s practically the face of getting a moment in the sun she decides it’s time to move on? Was “CRASH” in an uphill battle from the start that was doomed from the beginning?
No, obviously not.
Charli had a ton of demos and two whole albums before she got involved with PC Music, and they garnered her a lot of support. She’s written plenty of more straightforward pop songs, for herself and for other artists, that have been fun and irresistible to sing and dance along to, even some of them becoming hits, so we know she has the taste that could make this era work. Obviously it’s a little disappointing to hear that she wasn’t as involved with the songwriting process, but Charli has sung songs that she didn’t write before and they’ve been great. Atlantic was going all in on high budget music videos, televised performances, and big name press to promote the album. Charli had been working on and teasing this record since early 2020 before she even started working on “how i’m feeling now”, referring to it as her “Janet” album. An album that was inspired by the mega pop stardom of Janet Jackson and describing the album as an unapologetic “sellout” gave the impression of a larger than life record, recalling a time when pop albums were massive events, filled with bops that you would have on constant repeat. If the project delivered on those promises, it shouldn’t have mattered that it didn’t have the same sounds and atmospheres that she had been exploring with for more than half a decade - she was ready to do something new. So, now that “CRASH” is out, did it live up to expectations?
Well, I don’t think it quite stuck the landing with 10’s across the board. But, honestly, I think this fan pushback has been largely overblown.
Full disclosure, I don’t love “CRASH” as much as Charli’s last three projects; I’m not sure what I’d rate this album as of writing, but this might be first time in a while where a Charli album isn’t basically guaranteed a spot on my Best Albums of the Year list. But the intense backlash this album’s singles have gotten leading up to this was ridiculous to say the least. I saw stan Twitter and r/popheads lose their mind over “Beg For You” as though they wouldn’t have ate it up if it were on “Chromatica” or “Future Nostalgia”. The problems that hold back “CRASH” mainly boil down to two issues in particular. The first one is the overall song structures - a number songs here feel a little bit too short. I feel like a number of songs here end the fun early as I’m getting into them and if they just added another chorus and maybe a bridge they would feel fully fleshed out. The second issue is that the album plays a little too close to typical pop conventions. I think Charli could have easily paid tribute to the pop blockbusters of the past while still making something forward thinking, but not only is the music a little on the safe side, but it’s evocative of a period in music that so many people are doing right now. I’ve said it before, we’ve been nostalgic for the 80’s since the 90’s, and while I think “CRASH” does a much better job than a lot of other 80’s worship records, I still think it’s a sound that has kind of worn out its welcome.
So, yes, “CRASH” does have its faults, but I’d say that Charli’s great ear for pop music more than makes up for it. The production is super clean and glossy, with the right amount of punch that would be perfect for the dance floor at a club. I’d also say that Charli’s hook game is as great as its ever been, using her bratty vocal approach to sing choruses that ascend to anthemic heights. On top of that, I really like the fact that many of these songs have a potentially duel meaning, which, depending on how you look at it, could either be about an imperfect love relationship or be about her love/hate relationship with her record label Atlantic. Looking at some of the highlights here, “Baby” was the first single that really reminded me of Janet Jackson, with bright and colorful keys, a rhythmic guitar line, groovy drums and percussion, huge shots of bass, a fast and fun to sing along to vocal line, and some dramatic ass strings. Another track that I would say is very “Janet” is the cute album closer “Twice”, with it’s twinkling synth lead, repetitious and hypnotic “Don’t Think Twice” mini hook, bubbly vibe, playful groove, and a message about ignoring the doubts, fears, and insecurities you have and just living in the moment doing what you love with who you love. Also, and I might just be reading too much into it, parts of that song feel like it could be a tribute to her friend and frequent collaborator SOPHIE, which makes the song even more special. There are also plenty of tracks that show Charli’s messy yet fun and charismatic personality, like the first single “Good Ones” or the highly anticipated “Constant Repeat”, with punchy, four on the floor dance beats, hooks for days, and showing Charli’s bratty yet infectious attitude. Another stellar moment is “Move Me”, easily the most vibe heavy song here with a chorus that reminds of the better moments on her “Number 1 Angel” mixtape. There’s also the fun posse cut “New Shapes” with fan favorite collaborators Caroline Polachek and Christine and the Queens, showing great vocal performances from all three of them.
But of all the great tracks on “CRASH” that I may or may not have mentioned, the crowning jewel and easy standout is “Lightning”. The song is fueled by over the top drama, pure emotion, and an earth shattering sound worthy of a title like “Lightning” that would tear apart the dance floor. The production is shimmery and bright, with punchy bass and synths, drums that pop, crazy and futuristic vocoder and filter effects, a glitchy vocal breakdown that is so goddamn weird, even a flamenco inspired guitar line that shouldn’t work but oddly enough does. I love imagery of the lyrics, I think the songwriting is fully fleshed out, it’s another track that could just as easily be about a relationship as it could be about Atlantic, I think the vocal line is catchy as hell, Charli shows her personality and strength as a vocalist during it, and the chorus absolutely soars. It’s reminiscent of the 80’s yet it feels futuristic and new, evocative of a beloved era yet still forward thinking. This is the concept of a Charli XCX branded, massive pop sell out album at its very best and is probably one of Charli XCX’s best moments to date.
Honestly, the biggest sin that “CRASH” makes is following three decade defining and genre defining classics. If you view “CRASH” isolated from the futuristic hyperpop Charli has been playing in, you have a strong and solid pop album that would more than likely be receiving rapturous appraise. I think the pushback is just another instance of Charli’s fanbase not getting “Pop 2 Vol. 2 Electric Buggaloo”, just like how the major consensus on her self titled album was also that it was a disappointment until they gave it literally more than a second to let it sink in. Are songs that are a little too short and stick close to the rulebook enough to warrant a “flop era”? No. Duh. I’ll always have Charli’s hyperpop era closest to my heart, but she’s been doing that sound and working with the same handful of people for over six years now, the scene looks completely different now from when it started - hell, fucking RuPaul is making hyperpop now. It’s time for Charli to do something different, and going the blockbuster popstar route as her final album with her major record label is a great direction, especially when it’s something she’s always talked about wanting to do and she’s proven that she can pull it off really well, with bops and bangers for days. To me, “CRASH” proves that if anyone has earned a main pop girl moment, it’s Charli
That NFT thing wasn’t cool tho.