Charli XCX 2024
Photo: Harley Weir / Huxley

Charli XCX Is Everything on ‘Brat’

Brat is next-level Charli XCX, a miracle and an instant classic. It’s the kind of album that makes you feel lucky to be alive at the same time as it.

Charli XCX
7 June 2024

What makes a cool girl? She’s somewhere between fragile and feral, with the sort of face that makes you lose your train of thought, a stare that makes you squirm under all the beautiful and horrifying things she might be thinking about you. (And she probably isn’t thinking about you at all.) She moves against the grain but without any friction. Of course, she can pull off that hair; of course, she’s heard that song; of course, she’ll be at that party. Anyone who is anyone knows that she’s someone. What everyone is dying to be, she simply is and without even trying. That is maybe the most defining trait of all. Doing it without even trying. 

For over a decade, Charli XCX has passed many of the essential cool girl skill checks. On her critical darling debut, True Romance, she mined the blogosphere for electropop gold, pairing a bubblegum-snapping teenage vocal drawl with production lightyears away from being on-trend at the time. She was drawn to bigger and brighter, louder and busier, grafting her unique voice and talent for earworm hooks onto the styles of Pitchfork-y golden boys. From the beginning, she’s had a vision for pop music, a faith that its true fans loved music, not marketing. For Charli XCX, pop doesn’t need to go so easy on the ears; it can be a challenge, a mountain to climb, a game to be won.

But as many female pop stars are quick to tell you, it’s not so easy dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools. Charli’s voice – undoubtedly the driving creative force behind the instant classic “I Love It” – was drowned in the hype around its top-billing artist, Icona Pop. She sang the chorus on a #1 song, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, but she seemed to be fulfilling the stock role of Shouty British Girl – hardly a star vehicle. Charli XCX’s first bona fide solo hit was in “Boom Clap”, a bubbly 1980s homage written for the soundtrack of a saccharine teen blockbuster. Every last one a false start, and a poor reflection of what she really had to offer. Charli performed “Boom Clap” at the peak of its success on Saturday Night Live in 2014 but paired it with “Break the Rules”, a pointedly abrasive piece of pop-rock that seemed designed to destroy whatever cutesy image “Boom Clap” conjured. Charli XCX wanted to be a star, but if she were going to do it, it would be the right way.

After burning several more bridges to the mainstream by putting precious “Boom Clap” smack dab in the middle of her yelpy and raging second album Sucker, Charli pivoted. Or maybe it was more like slamming the brakes and doing donuts. 

Charli’s next move following Sucker was an EP called Vroom Vroom. Helmed by PC Music’s leading lady SOPHIE, Charli XCX suddenly became the hard-partying, sexy, and cool face of a decidedly uncommercial new genre: hyperpop. One could spin their wheels all day long about the term, but across Vroom Vroom’s four ecstatic tracks, an entirely new artist was born: an artist with real stakes, a pop star in uncharted territory. Even the critics who once celebrated Charli’s boundary-pushing sound and lamented her mainstream pigeonholing weren’t sure what to make of it. 

Graciously, Charli XCX’s theory about pop music fans turned out to be correct. The kinetic, clanging, high-BPM sugar rush of Vroom Vroom converted legions of pop fans who were dying for something harder, better, faster, stronger. (The number one song in the country at the time of its release was Justin Bieber’s insipid “Love Yourself”.) Soon, Charli XCX represented something more significant than another potential pop star: an alternative future for pop music, a pop star for people with taste, and, above all, a cool girl. Which only made the subsequent years more complicated.

A creative struggle with her team at Atlantic Records forced her to release complete projects into “mixtape” limbo, not quite proper releases, branded as some sort of loose idea dump from Charli XCX as she recalibrated. These mixtapes, specifically 2017’s Pop 2, went on to be some of the most revered works of her career by critics and fans, a refinement of her experiments on Vroom Vroom. But without the support of big-label luster, Charli XCX was operating on a different, lesser level than her peers. By the time Atlantic finally got on board for 2019’s Charli, it was too late; she was the queen of the B-listers, charting at #42 on Billboard for a week before dropping off entirely. Her 2020 project, How I’m Feeling Now, was a commercial failure despite running virtually uncontested in the early Covid landscape. 

Charli XCX’s production and songwriting were immaculate; critics and fans alike adored her bold approach, and she was the poster girl for avant-garde pop and discerning listenership. But throughout this chapter of her career, chinks in the cool girl armor began to show. In a 2019 interview with Pitchfork, she admitted, “Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m not bigger than I am.” Single choices on her big-label return Charli stunk of chart ambition – most glaringly in the release of “Blame It on Your Love”, a bouncy tropical revamp of perhaps her most adored and adventurous song, “Track 10″. The new version felt like a betrayal, a desecration of a holy object, and, worst of all, desperate. 

This trajectory culminated in 2022’s abysmal Crash, a self-conscious attempt at a commercial cash grab designed for maximum plausible deniability. Based on press ahead of the album’s release, the premise was something like: “What if I did sell out?” Charli worked with all the producers her label asked her to work with; she released glitzy, choreographed music videos; she dropped the rough edges that made her music distinctive. She flipped September’s “Cry For You” on her track “Beg For You”, hopping on the bandwagon of corporate pop corpsefucking, dredging up iconic dance music samples for the quickest, filthiest buck possible.

Desperate, thirsty, and trying too hard—these traits do not make a cool girl. Eagerness reeks. Enter “Von Dutch”. Thank God. 

It’s okay to just admit that you’re jealous of me

Yeah, I heard you talk about me, that’s the word on the street

You’re obsessin’, just confess it, put your hands up

It’s obvious, I’m your number one

Von Dutch, cult classic in your eardrums

Why you lyin’? You won’t fuck unless he’s famous

Do that little dance, without it, you’d be nameless

It’s so obvious, I’m your number one

“Von Dutch” is the stuff dreams are made of. If you haven’t yet heard this song, count yourself lucky among the people who still get to hear it for the first time. You should lose your “Von Dutch” V-card like this: loud, flying down a highway, then louder, and on repeat. It’s pure adrenaline, the sort of electric bliss that a pop star usually only gets to have one song’s worth. With “Von Dutch” alongside “I Love It”, Charli XCX had two.

Then, she found more, graciously shared on her sixth record, Brat. Brat is a perfect pop record over a decade in the making, a distilled and bottled cool that sings with fully realized potential, the release of inhibitions, the kind of confidence that can only be earned through shame, and the sort of hooks that God touches you with. Brat is next-level Charli XCX, a miracle and an instant classic. It’s the kind of album that makes you feel lucky to be alive at the same time as it.

Alongside the release of “Von Dutch”, Brat’s first single, we seemed to be promised a straight-played club record: Big beats, nasty synths, huge Auto-Tuned vocals, and that extra hyper-poppy edge that Charli’s so beloved for. Subsequent singles “Club Classics” and “B2B” doubled down on this standard, two pieces of throbbing and relentless dance music. In “Club Classics”, Charli XCX rushes to get a lyric out, “I wanna be blinded by the lights, that’s nice”, before its synths burst to life, bathed in neon, straight from the speakers to your dopamine centers. “B2B” boasts percussion with clobbering power and pure blunt force. We seemed to be getting what Charli fans had been begging for: the grittiest, dirtiest, no-distractions fun she could muster.

But these are the expectations of listeners now trained on Charli XCX’s imitators as much as Charli herself, craving the ironic and jokey hedonism of 100 Gecs, the invulnerable sex drive of Kim Petras, the dumb lucky golden hooks of the thousands of unwashed Auto-Tuned TikTok musicians. Charli knows what you want before you want it.

So we have “I Might Say Something Stupid”, a bleak Ed Banger-inspired lament of all that time spent pretending to be a cool girl – specifically someone else’s cool girl. When she croons, “I don’t feel like nothing special, snag my tights out on the lawn chair,” it’s an admittance of all those false starts, all those things she could’ve been over the years, all those times she flailed to be somebody on someone else’s terms. We also have “Girl, So Confusing”, where she talk-raps like Uffie, then sings in a husky timbre strangely reminiscent of “Come on Eileen”, then chops and screws her voice beyond recognition into unimaginably catchy spirals.

We have “I Think About It All the Time”, a song in which the mess of production melts away, and Charli XCX’s voice emerges clear and unadorned to reflect on what she might lose if she decides to become a mother (or what she might gain if she doesn’t). Immediately after, we’re launched into “365″, a track whose central question is: should we do some blow?

Brat thrives on contradictions in its lyrics. It lives at the plunging cliff between “adulthood” and Adulthood. It boasts her reputation as a trendsetter, only to shrink at the presence of someone who might be doing it better. It’s pensive, hectic, damaged, confident, referential, inventive, beyond expectations, and exactly meeting them. It’s fascinating and star-making. By finally coming out and addressing the elephant in the room– all of the could’ves, would’ves, and should’ves of her career– she suddenly seems capable of anything. This is the brattiness in question: why is it so much to ask to be everything and every way at once?

Of course, none of this would be worth much if the music wasn’t as good as it is. Listening to Brat, I wondered why every pop star isn’t making their music sound this intense in terms of pure engineering. Who wouldn’t want their music to sound this juicy? The synth lines on “Sympathy Is a Knife” are dense and decadent, the kind of raw sound that would immediately be focused-grouped out of a Camilla Cabello track. The vocal treatments on “Everything Is Romantic” are optimized for ASMR giddiness. The claps on the verses of “Talk Talk” are nothing shy of a spanking. 

What makes the whole thing so satisfying is how relaxed Charli is across the entire project. On her collab-heavy previous projects, there sometimes seemed to be a lack of faith in her star power. Brat features no such guest stars. Where Charli and Crash made commercial concessions, Brat urges you to take it or leave it. (Based on early sales projections, people seem to be taking it finally.) Charli sometimes felt like a palatable face for the musical accomplishments of her producers, SOPHIE and A.G. Cook, but Brat would go limp without Charli XCX.

It’s a full delivery on the promise of Charli XCX: the coolest, finally recognizing that she is the fucking coolest. Rarely does a magnum opus come so late in a career like this, but seldom is there a career like Charli’s. Where Pop 2 and Charli were striving, tense, and too anxious to prove their worth, Brat is the sound of pure release. Dancefloors shake, tears flow, every path is exhausted, dreams shatter, and new ones are born, on repeat forever. Brat is an album for people who want everything on their terms, and if Charli XCX is any evidence, many of them will get it.

RATING 10 / 10