Pop 2, the latest mixtape by English electropop oddity Charli XCX released on Asylum Records assembles an eclectic team of collaborateurs and saboteurs from both the fringe and mainstream of contemporary pop music. The mixtape opens with “Backseat” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, whose own work has progressed substantially since her 2012 breakthrough hit “Call Me Maybe.” A moody ballad to the desire to escape heartbreak and doubt into sound, its gliding production and chopped-up refrains establish a stark, open, meditative atmosphere that persists throughout the first half of the mixtape. Charli XCX leads us on an intimate, mournful tour of the breakdown of a relationship. “Lucky” leaves us lingering on a reprisal of the opener’s refrain, “all alone”—but this time, rather than a desperate call, it’s a spacey, autotuned evaporation into ether.
By the time we reach the fifth track and promotional single, “I Got It,” which features Brooke Candy, CupcakKe, and Brazilian drag artist Pabllo Vittar, the tone and scope of the tape has changed dramatically—our sparse synths have given way to a grimy, sexy, bass-heavy dance track. Brooke Candy’s opening verse is a boastful provocation; CupcakKe’s rhymes are an effortlessly cool study in sprezzatura; Vittar’s swooning Portuguese verse lays atop pulsing synths; Charli XCX’s driving, repetitive chorus ties the production together. It’s a patchwork of a track, one that speaks especially to the collaborative philosophy of the mixtape.
PC Music’s A.G. Cook, the mixtape’s executive producer and creative director, lends an aesthetic unity to Pop 2’s disparate voices—a distorted vision of the limits of the pop landscape: ethereal, kitschy, apocalyptic. Known primarily for his internet-saturated consumer-critical pastiche of digital popular culture and his work with acts like Hannah Diamond, Cook’s production ethos on Pop 2 is less tethered to a particular stance of immanent critique. Instead, this collaboration seems to have permitted him to play with a more straightforward kind of experimentation to the effect of elevating his own art as well as Charli XCX’s. The production really shines on tracks like “Tears” (feat. Caroline Polachek), where sputtering drums collapse like faulty machinery into sad-ecstatic synth bells.
Other standouts on the tape include “Femmebot” featuring queer performance icons Dorian Electra and Mykki Blanco, a retro-futurist sci-fi romp complete with noisy, robotic-erotic autotune play and “Delicious” with Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, which is notably interrupted by a deconstructive interlude of Charli XCX’s 2014 radio hit “Boom Clap,” which somehow seems to express in full the stance of Pop 2.
Charli XCX’s second mixtape of 2017, Pop 2 is in many ways an expansion and refinement of the aims of its predecessor, Number 1 Angel. Here, she’s brought on as collaborators some of the same artists as that tape (CupcakKe, MØ). But she’s taken that collaboration to daring new ends. While the mixtape in no way lacks a conventional pop sensibility, it constantly challenges and reinvents that same sensibility.
On Pop 2, the element of play is paramount—playing with conventions, embracing them and then turning around to subvert them. It bears the mark of a prankish exuberance—a kind of self-awareness that neither falls into sneering distance nor saccharine sincerity. We like pop music, but sometimes we hate that we do. Pop 2 never mocks us for this fact, but instead embraces us, gives us exactly what we want, but it winks while doing it. This is no doubt partially the influence of A.G. Cook, whose projects with PC Music have for a long time attempted to strike precisely this pose. But that earlier work lacked the sheer star power and mainstream appeal that only an artist like Charli XCX can bring to the table. In this way, their collaboration has brought a maturity to both artists’ work. And beyond that, it achieves a remarkable thing: it delivers the kind of pop music that pop music desperately needs.
By gathering voices as diverse as chart-topping pop sensations and out-there queer performance artists, and uniting them into a unified vision, Charli XCX (with the not insignificant aid of A.G. Cook) has in a certain way delivered a manifesto—one with the aim of shaking up a genre which has fallen into complacency, and one which the industry would be amiss to ignore.