As someone who had found Charli XCX’s first two studio albums to be incredibly bland and often clumsy, the singer’s Vroom Vroom EP proved to be perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise in pop music from last year. Teaming up with experimental electronic music producer SOPHIE of PC Music fame, this release saw the artist take a weird and quirky turn that provided substance beyond just the aesthetic supplied by SOPHIE’s wacky instrumentals. Indeed, the slightly abnormal approach to songwriting and lyric-writing that Charli XCX had seemingly attempted on her first two albums took a more idiosyncratic form that was executed with an admirable amount of scope and ability, whilst not losing any of the fun-loving, bubblegum-flavoured pop sound that the singer was known for. Given that this project was just an EP, many people, including myself, were left curious as to whether or not this more adventurous approach to pop music would appear on the singer’s future material. However, following the release of her single After the Afterparty, these hopes of mine were unfortunately dashed given how disappointingly plain this track was, lacking the vibrancy of much of Vroom Vroom, despite once again featuring production courtesy of SOPHIE. Thankfully, my optimism was significantly reassured following Charli XCX’s collaboration with famed Japanese producer Yasutaka Nakata on his solo single Crazy Crazy, along with eccentric J-pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who has worked with Yasutaka throughout her entire discography. I had often picked up a slight J-pop influence on Charli XCX’s approach to bubblegum pop on Vroom Vroom, and the saccharine synthpop sensibilities of Crazy Crazy only reinforced this thought. Indeed, the sweetness reminiscent of pop from Japan is also evident on Charli XCX’s new mixtape, Number 1 Angel, albeit in a slightly more conventional fashion here, with many of these tracks boasting bouncy, playful production not solely from SOPHIE, but also a host of other producers associated with the PC Music label, most noticeably the collective’s founder, A. G. Cook. As one would expect from a mixtape featuring the futuristic pop stylings of PC Music producers, Number 1 Angel features another collection of enticing, forward-thinking bedroom pop tunes. However, Charli XCX and the help she employs notably rein in the kookiness of Vroom Vroom, which is unfortunate seeing as the more out-there tracks are easily the most remarkable on the mixtape. Nonetheless, although not as brazenly playful and crazy as her EP from last year, Number 1 Angel furthers the case for Charli XCX rising to prominence as one of the most important pop singers currently to be putting a somewhat avant-garde spin on her music.
The opening track, Dreamer, establishes the more conventional electropop vibe exhibited on Number 1 Angel, but is nevertheless carried out with enough spirit and quirkiness to make for a good start to the record. This cut also establishes the heavy influence from hip hop on this mixtape, with Charli XCX’S flow mimicking that of an MC on a trap hook, as do the respective featured verses from R&B singers Starrah and Raye. Even the instrumental is somewhat evocative of trap, particularly as a result of the emphasis placed on the expansive, booming bass that provides the key melody amongst the glitchy, spacious soundscape created by Cook. Both Starrah and Raye’s features are rather impressive, with both artists shaking up their flows sufficiently, which lends itself well to the breezy vibe of the beat. Perhaps what’s most pertinent about Dreamer is the way in which it lays down the extent to which Number 1 Angel seeks to balance the eclectic and off-the-wall production stylings of the PC Music crew with the characteristics of Charli that appeal to a wider audience. The closing track, Lipgloss, conveys this even more prominently, with one of the most dazzling instrumentals on the entire tape, to which Cook, SOPHIE and Life Sim contributed. The roaring synth melodies that dominate this cut are incredibly fiery and catchy, but thankfully they don’t overpower Charli’s sprightly and flirtatious singing, which carry a definite J-pop vibe, both lyrically and thanks to the textured mixing of her various vocal parts. The track takes a very different turn during the verses, however, as a result of the feature from Chicago rapper CupcakKe, who comes through with some of her usual raunchy, graphic, in-your-face verses. With the bare-faced hip hop appeal of CupcakKe’s feature, Lipgloss stands out as one of the most successful examples of the meeting of the PC Music and Charli XCX worlds, maintaining a healthy dose of pop appeal, even amidst the busy and electrifying sonic soundscapes. It’s for these reasons that the best tracks on Number 1 Angel are often so successful. To cite a few examples, Emotional boasts an incredibly impassioned vocal performance from Charli, with Easy FX crafting a fabulously explosive instrumental backdrop that perfectly captures the sentimental mood created by the singer on the track. In a similar vein, the soaring synths over the hook on ILY2 provide the perfect foundation for Charli’s swooping vocals, just as the buoyant beat on Babygirl acts as the ideal companion for the artist’s playful singing. Indeed, the best moments on Number 1 Angel show that Charli XCX and her colleagues at PC Music can create forward-thinking and sometimes eccentric pop music whilst nevertheless not sacrificing the conventions that provide such songs with a far-reaching mainstream appeal.
This being said, whilst the best moments on Number 1 Angel live up to the animated and colourful nature of Vroom Vroom, some of the tracks here teeter on the edge of being a bit too rudimentary to advance the vision that Charli XCX seems to have devised for her artistic persona. One of the most obvious examples of this is 3AM (Pull Up), which features one of the most straightforward instrumentals on this mixtape that, considering Charli’s bouncy, peppy vocal lines, doesn’t complement the singer to the extent that it could have. There is most definitely an effort to effectively support Charli, as evidenced by the accented chimes that back up her punctuated vocals on the hook, but for the most part, Easy FX’s beat is a bit too bland to energise the song as much as the better instrumentals on the tape. The succeeding track, Blame It On You, also leaves a lot to be desired instrumentally speaking, with the sparse beat provided by Cook leaving a lot of space that isn’t filled as effectively as it could be. Charli’s vocals on this track, too, are amongst her least spirited on the mixtape, especially over the hook as Cook’s beat picks up with the singer lagging behind slightly with a pretty safe performance. Indeed, it is most definitely the more ordinary and less boldly boisterous cuts on Number 1 Angel that hinder Charli from ascertaining a significant position amongst mainstream pop artists who are making an effort to expand, diversify and experiment with their sound. In this regard, this tape feels like somewhat of an attempted compromise at marrying the more left-field ideas primarily brought to the table by the PC Music crowd with Charli’s earlier, more commonplace electropop sound. Whilst it is certainly successful on this mixtape’s best moments, the times wherein it is not as successful unfortunately lack the energy and charisma from which Charli’s music really benefits.
Overall, Number 1 Angel is a slight deviation from Vroom Vroom towards a more conventional approach to pop music, whilst nevertheless incorporating the off-kilter production style of the PC Music collective, and, indeed, the best tracks are those which display the marrying of these two worlds to the most effective and successful extent. Whilst even this mixtape’s kookiest moments are still a noticeable step down from Charli XCX’s EP from last year, the quirky instrumentals and dynamic performances from the singer often provide enough substance to make much of this album stand out amongst the work of contemporary female bubblegum pop artists to a similar degree. This being said, I have come out of Number 1 Angel sincerely hoping that Charli pursues the more experimental sounds featured on this tape and Vroom Vroom compared to the more straightforward approach, as a full studio album of this ilk could be something very special. The fact that the artist’s exploration of these stylings has, thus far, been limited to an EP and a mixtape worries me slightly that her next studio album will be a continuation of the rudimentary sound featured on her last full-length record, Sucker, but then again, perhaps this has merely been a tentative feel of the waters before committing to a full project. Anyhow, Number 1 Angel nonetheless acts as one of Charli XCX’s most cohesive and forward-thinking additions to her discography to date, and it makes the case for the musician growing into one of the most important figures amongst experimental pop artists.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10