“Why isn’t she more famous?” is a question that often came to mind when people first encountered Charli XCX. Four years ago, you might have known the then-21-year-old rising artist as the brains behind Icona Pop’s "I Love It" and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” Then there was Sucker, her excellent, critically acclaimed 2014 album, which didn't make nearly as much of an impact as it deserved to, aside from her Top 10 single "Boom Clap" (which got a boost from its appearance in the YA flick The Fault in Our Stars). This year, fans are awaiting her upcoming third studio album, whose lead single — "After the Afterparty," a cute party song featuring Lil Yachty — has yet to chart in the U.S.
But these days, Charli doesn’t seem to care as much about being the Britney Spears–level pop star she once dreamed of becoming as a young teenager signed to Atlantic Records at 16. “I used to really care about my validity as a writer or as someone who’s going to be received well,” she said in an interview last year. “And now I don’t.” Case in point: 2016's Vroom Vroom, an EP full of sharp, dark pop music made in collaboration with English producer SOPHIE. It was a total left turn from Sucker — and her new mixtape, Number 1 Angel, picks up where that project left off, delivering a fantastic grab bag of cutting-edge pop music that you wish would worm its way up through the Billboard Hot 100 and eat Ed Sheeran for breakfast.
Like Vroom Vroom, the bulk of Number 1 Angel is produced by members or affiliates of the offbeat English label PC Music, which is known for releasing music that sounds like early Mandy Moore filtered through a Petra Cortright performance-art video. But while the previous EP was somewhat polarizing, with Charli rapping and singing as a latex-clad domme over demented club cuts like “Trophy” and “Vroom Vroom,” Number 1 Angel is notably sweeter. Throughout the mixtape, she seems to have found a happy middle ground between the new wave rocker she was on Sucker and the electro-freak she was last year.
“I don’t talk a lot, talk a lot / So you should listen up, listen up / I mean it when I say / I’m not afraid, it’s OK, you know I love you too,” Charli sings on the Danny L Harle–produced standout “ILY2." With its cheerleader-stomp beat and searing electric guitar, it would be at home alongside the punchy pop-rock of Sucker. Other highlights, like “Roll With Me” and “Lipgloss," build on SOPHIE's trademark hyper, pizzicato EDM synths. The latter song also includes a stunningly nasty verse from the Chicago rapper CupcakKe, whose signature lines (“Serve you pussy for your lunch, so let me wear a hairnet”) pair well with Charli’s “sticky, icky” innuendo-filled chorus — a reminder that the artist has much more to give adult listeners than the teen-friendly polish of Sucker. Elsewhere, Charli balances her sugary pop with the slick, trap-influenced production of “Blame It on You” and “White Roses,” perhaps priming herself for a career writing for rappers who aren’t Igloo Azalea.
One particularly memorable dimension to Number 1 Angel is the way it highlights Charli's status as a name-brand creator. On “Dreamer,” "White Roses," and “Blame It on You,” among others, you hear her whispering a little “XCX” signature before the song begins, as if she's Mike Will Made-It or Metro Boomin tagging one of their hit productions. The mixtape boasts six features from singers and rappers, all of whom are women — a rarity for female pop singers, who often invite male hitmakers onto tracks to boost their potential popularity, or provide a dueling energy on songs that demand a boy-girl push and pull.
Because Charli got her first big commercial break with a feature role on “Fancy,” a song that would be nothing without her, this newfound sense of collaboration feels important to her growth as an artist. On Number 1 Angel, Charli provides platforms for rising artists like Awful Records singer/producer Abra (on “Drugs”), but she also makes room for the oft-forgotten ’00s rapper Uffie, who turns up on the delightfully campy, Fiorucci jeans–referencing “Babygirl,” a song that calls to mind ’80s R&B cuts like Mary Jane Girls’ "Candy Man." As a musician who's been called in to write new material for Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, and even Rihanna, Charli XCX clearly has a definitive, sought-after approach to songwriting. Number 1 Angel is a reminder of her increasingly coveted cosign, and her ongoing interest in finding new pop singers, rappers, and producers to collaborate with.
In the past five years, Charli has been the organically Tumblr-grown pop star, the punk teen leader from an ’80s movie, and the perfectly chilly pop cipher — a zigzag, often thrilling path through the outskirts of the mainstream. By continually flipping a middle finger to charting trends, is she missing out on a No. 1 hit? Probably. But Number 1 Angel, with its irresistible, futuristic pop and much-needed collaborations with underrated female rappers, further proves that she’s an artist in an exciting and worthwhile lane of her own making.