Charli XCX’s sophomore album, Sucker, begins with a big, fat “fuck you” — literally. She holds nothing back on the opening title song, calling herself a killer and her detractors suckers, all over a merciless electronic rock track. It’s the sort of thing Shirley Manson might have offered up in Garbage’s late ’90s prime, after a particularly nasty disagreement with a major label. Under Charli’s watch, “Sucker” slyly shouts out Dr. Luke (“You joined my club/ Luke loves your stuff”) and sets the tone for an album full of sharp pop kiss-offs across love, laws, and lavish lifestyles. The 22-year-old singer and songwriter, born Charlotte Aitchison, then reveals the heart of her anger: “Oh dear god, do you get me now?”
The album that follows tries to make sense of all that Charli XCX is in 2014: one year and a half removed from True Romance, the electro-pop debut that proved her to be musically ambitious, albeit slightly young-seeming and trend-chasing; nearly a year after her self-imposed rage-writing punk session in Sweden; mere months following her Top 40 rise as the hook girl on one of 2014’s biggest hits, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” followed up by her own proper hit, the beat-driven ode to onomatopoeia, “Boom Clap.” For the most part, Sucker excels at finding the middle ground among these worlds, with Charli’s personality sitting in the axis of the overlap.
When Aitchison began working on Sucker, she said to expect a punk record — a departure from True Romance’s all-electronic tracks. Further recording sessions coupled with her Hot 100 breakthrough this summer left Sucker as a full-on pop album, almost by default. The former punk record peaking through is what sets Aitchison apart from her pop peers, while aiding in the establishment of the youth revolt that defines Sucker. This is the stuff of sassy teenage bedroom dance parties, the sort of pop music that caters to young listeners who’re just starting to dabble in feelings of disenfranchisement and declared boredom, most likely via the internet. Like Charli, they may find it liberating to dance on top of a school bus as “School’s Out” plays on the radio, but they may need a cultural nudge to even consider such a stunt.
Aitchison is too skilled as a pop songwriter for others (Iggy, Icona Pop) not to keep her message mostly universal in pursuit of the mainstream dream. Her wordplay is clever, albeit generic — “my platinum troubles are drowning in pink champagne” (riff-y standout “Gold Coins”) — but her personal attitude permeates Sucker so much, the songs take on a bratty demeanor, with music to suit each particular rule-breaking offense. “Need Ur Luv” finds Aitchison in near chipmunk register, at times straining to get there but mostly just pouting her way through the part of a ’60s girlgroup leader (my money’s on The Shangri-Las). “Famous” recycles annoying chart trends — sing-along chorus, whistling, spoken-word breakdown — into a pop-punk party with just four guitar chords. “Hanging Around,” a duet with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, takes a well-treaded arena rock drum beat and throws ~*kO0kY*~ synth bleeps and Cuomo’s vocal harmonization in the mix, making it as off-kilter as Charli’s choice of Sucker collaborators, who walk the line between commercial success and critical acclaim. (This includes Stargate, Benny Blanco, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Robyn producer Patrik Berger, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Cashmere Cat.)
The harshest criticism you can pin on these bad-attitude anthems is fading into the crowd. “Doing It” would have fit in on Haim’s Days Are Gone, while the feel-good “Die Tonight” could be a hit for Kesha were its production less experimental. But these songs don’t feel like dress-up on Charli, like the worst of True Romance did (ahem, her Auto-Tuned duet with Brooke Candy, “Cloud Aura”). On True Romance, Charli’s originality stemmed from the extremity of the electronic textures surrounding her pop hooks, rather than a clear representation of the artist’s vision. It would be hard to say the same of Sucker, particularly after the mass success Aitchison has seen this year and the excellent album she’s cast in her own distinct mold in spite of it. So yeah, I guess you could say we get you now, Charli XCX.