After garnering critical acclaim with 2013’s playful, zeitgeist-chasing True Romance, which she now thumbs her nose at for its too-desperate attempts at being “cool,” Charli XCX seemingly tossed away her ticket to stardom when she gifted “I Love It” to Swedish electro duo Icona Pop. But the track’s gleeful defiance was pure Charli, even if audiences were reticent to credit her for its runaway success. Charli’s sophomore effort, Sucker, is the sound of a long-incubating star emerging so fully formed on an international stage that it’s difficult to figure that an artist gifted with so much sneering bravado was ever thought of as an underdog.
The album’s first half is presumably the result of the scrapped punk album Charli reportedly recorded in Sweden, concentrated into take-no-prisoners genre-melding pop songs imbued with snot-nosed teenage insouciance. The title track is the opening battle cry, all shit-talking and shouted fuck-you’s over jittery new-wave-inflected synths. “Break the Rules” is Charli bettering the nihilistic mantra of “I Love It” with something more mindless, but infinitely more fun; the acid-tinged breakdown is so perfectly ’90s that the Spice Girls should be kicking themselves for never coming up with something as tastefully kitschy. “London Queen” sounds like Gwen Stefani fronting an 8-bit version of the Ramones, “Gold Coins” is an ode to retail therapy that combines Britpop guitars with Super Mario sound effects, and the off-beat synth line in the second chorus of “Boom Clap” is as ingenious a refrain variation as you’ll hear in pop music this year.
The second half of the album may lay off the bangers, but it also exposes a more vulnerable version of Charli XCX who’s still unsure of her status in the pop world (“Famous”) and fumbling through her love life (“Need Ur Love”). And while the sonic palette of the jerky “Body of My Own”’ may be heavily indebted to the 1980s, its masturbation boosterism (“I don’t need you/My touch is better”) is as thoroughly modern a self-love PSA as young women will get in these sexually regressive times. Even the stale new-jack-swing retread “Doing It” and the Rivers Cuomo co-write “Hanging Around,” which heavily cribs from Weezer’s “Beverly Hills,” are incapable of derailing Sucker’s irresistible momentum.
Nobody’s going to be tricked into thinking Sucker, which is filled with compact songs that rarely stray from pop’s tried-and-true topics of parties and romance, is an important artistic document. But Charli’s love of crunchy guitars, explosive synths, and glib vocal deliveries of even the most dispensable lyrics is simply infectious. Someone needed to author the aural equivalent of the body shot, and Charli XCX has provided the platonic ideal of just that: a party album charged equally with punkish rebellion, hip-hop cool, and pop universality.