As Charli XCX’s Pop 2 mixtape passes 100 million streams on Spotify, CelebMix looks back over an industry-defining era from the avant-garde popstar.
It’s December 3rd 2017, less than eight months since Charli XCX appeared on Radio 1 to announce the surprise drop of the Number 1 Angel mixtape. The singer takes to Twitter to speculate, “imagine if i did another mixtape…”, followed by a list of likeminded curators.
On that Sunday night, fans on social media didn’t know what to think. Was XCX just speculating? Were these plans for a project months in the future? Having just released Number 1 Angel out of nowhere, it couldn’t be another mixtape? Could it…
Five days later, ‘Out Of My Head’ with ALMA and Tove Lo dropped, then ‘Unlock It’ with Kim Petras and Jay Park was premiered as Beats 1’s World Record and after that ‘I Got It’ with Brooke Candy, Cupcakke and Pabllo Vittar appeared on streaming services. On December 15th 2017, the full Pop 2 project, whose list of features also includes Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek, Dorian Electra, Mykki Blanco, Tommy Cash and Mø, was let out into the world. XCX was back at it, adding fuel to the firey pop revolution she had ignited with Number 1 Angel.
“Charli’s second mixtape of the year isn’t just about proving she’s more than your average pop star, but about her settling into her role as innovator, celebrator, and curator supreme”, NME wrote. For Pitchfork, it felt “like a revelation”, The Guardian saw it as something “more interesting” than the pop music currently reflected in the charts, Crack Magazine credited it as “electropop reaching adulthood” and Consequence of Sound finished their piece by saying, “On Pop 2, her curiosity moves her to strange, beautiful places where she offers up irresistible artefacts all of her own”.
Perhaps more importantly for Charli XCX, who stopped making music for commercial success years ago, Pop 2 resonated with the fans. CelebMix spoke to one who shared: “Pop 2 really blew open the doors for what it could mean to create pop music.” Another noted the mixtape’s futuristic attitude: “The feeling the tracks give off is ethereal. It truly takes you into Charli’s vision of pop music as another world. Pop 2 is going to be one of those projects that will be looked towards in the future as ahead of its time. It’s futuristic pop escapism.” And for others, it’s more than the tracks alone: “It’s not just the music I love, it’s the reasons behind it. Fans don’t feel like they are being sold something from a record label. And at the live shows, we feel part of the whole Pop 2 world.”
Whoever took to the internet to share their thoughts, whether fans who understood Pop 2 or XCX ‘haters’, there was no denying that this was something astronomically different. Fully recorded and released in three months, no record label inteference, Kanye West-esque autotune on steroids and 80% of the project featuring collaborations, any music industry big wig would have told you it wouldn’t work.
Thankfully, and deliberately, those big wigs never had a say. Consequently, Pop 2 ducked the charts to go viral online and slide its way into the underground club scene, where the mixtape’s 10 fizzling tracks took on lives of their own.
First up in March 2018 was Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre and then New York’s Elsewhere, with a YouTube stream of the latter released online a month afterwards. Each time, an opening few minutes of A.G. Cook’s PC Music electronica welcomed XCX fans into the musical world the two had created, before the popstar bounded onto stage to annouce, “this is Pop 2!”. London’s Village Underground and Paris’ La Maroquinerie were up in June and Sydney’s The Metro in October. Each time cameos from the likes of Tove Lo, Carly Rae Jepsen, Brooke Candy, Mykki Blanco, Tommy Cash and Dorian Electra whipped crowds into a frenzy.
Not just any shows, Pop 2 live saw XCX’s sonic pop revolution turn physical on the stage – simple staging, futuristic design, forward-thinking crowds and industry admirers all melted together over an hour and fifteen minutes of relentless electropop. NME attended the “biblical” London show and “left without a shadow of doubt that Charli XCX is the pop force to be reckoned with”. In New York, The Independent declared that, “the 25-year-old visionary is long overdue the credit she deserves”. At the El Rey Theatre, the Los Angeles Times hit the Pop 2 nail on the head: “How often do you see a female pop star building an entire show around celebrating her so-called competition? The joy on XCX’s face upon welcoming her guests felt like a middle finger to the traditional (and misguided) narrative that there’s room for only one woman in the room.”
A far cry from the big venues played whilst on the road with sophomore record Sucker, XCX was choosing what she wanted to do for her own music. Sure, she could have sold an extra 2,000 entries at each show and rolled in more money, but that just wouldn’t be ‘Pop 2’. For the first time in a while, Charli XCX seemed fully behind every decision she was making. “I may not be the biggest, but I’m definitely one of the best”, she famously announced whilst playing in London. Dorian Electra co-organised U.S. afterparties saw Pop 2’s underground presence grow even further, as tracks such as ‘Unlock It’ even made their way onto the singer’s support sets on Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour to reach an even younger audience.
Amongst all the performances of 2018, XCX was moving forward too. She dropped ‘5 In The Morning’, ‘Focus’, ‘No Angel’ and ‘Girls Night Out’ as singles, some of which had been rattling around at live shows for years, but made it clear that Pop 2 was something that would live on in the XCX sound. Sure enough, as ‘Blame It On Your Love‘ was released as the lead single from upcoming studio album Charli, it was merely a tightened up version of ‘Track 10’. Charli XCX was ready to take her underground sound and continue to push it to the masses in a wider album format. Follow up tracks ‘Gone‘, ‘Cross You Out‘ and ‘Warm’ all also nod to the Pop 2 era with their moments of electro flair and A.G. Cook production, yet are clearly the start of a new cycle we’ll be reflecting back on in 12 months time. In the coming months, club venues will change to bigger, more prestigious music halls. A 5,000 capacity O2 Academy Brixton homecoming show on October 31st looks set to be the singer’s most important career moment to date.
But Pop 2 has done more than just rebirth Charli XCX’s musical career; it has played a huge role in giving its otherwise underestimated collaborators a bigger audience too. All who had released projects that brought success in their own right, now they picked up traction from the mixtape’s success. Fans couldn’t hear Cupcakke’s verse on ‘I Got It’ without tasting more of her outrageous rap afterwards. Caroline Polachek’s pitched up screams were so ear-catching fans headed her way too. Pabllo Vittar was already the most followed drag queen in the world thanks to her Brazilian dominance but now an English-speaking crowd were smashing that follow button. At a time when K-pop was really taking off, Jay Park was a name introduced on the other side of the world. Mykki Blanco’s charismatic presence couldn’t have been more endearing. And as Dorian Electra bounded onto the stage each night for renditions of ‘Femmebot’, they continued to bound into fans’ hearts too.
In its music, in its attitude and in its electricity amongst fans, Pop 2 is still very much alive as XCX readies Charli. Her most important record to date, coming as Pop 2 hits one hundred million Spotify streams, the XCX world is about to be bigger than ever before.
What does Charli XCX’s Pop 2 mean to you? Are you looking forward to XCX’s new album? Let us know @CelebMix on Twitter.