Over the last few years pop music has mutated. Where once the mainstream absorbed the underground, polishing off its rougher edges, the two now seem to be running concurrently, constantly intertwining. At the forefront of this undeniable shift is Charli XCX, possibly the most effortlessly amazing pop star working today. Having released one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of 2013 in the shape of the dark and stormy, synth-lead True Romance she went on to co-write brilliantly shouty global behemoth ‘I Love It’ for Icona Pop and the US Number One single ‘Fancy’ with rapper Iggy Azalea (5 million global sales and counting). Not only that but as soon as True Romance was released she immediately started work on what would become her second album Sucker; a 14 track collection veering from the heartburst wonder of global smash ‘Boom Clap’ (her first UK Top Ten and another gargantuan Top Ten hit in America), the bratty pop-punk of ‘Break The Rules’, the clattering, tongue-in-cheek vim of ‘London Queen’ to the experimental hip-hop stylings of Gold Coins. “By the time True Romance came out I was like 'fuck, I'm ready now',” she says of her creative restlessness. “I know who I am now and I just wanted to do it again and make it better. I feel like this is the best music I've ever made.”
Having always behaved like a proper pop star, made songs like a proper pop star and oozed that special something that all proper pop stars have, it initially seemed to be taking the general public a bit of time to play catch up. ‘I Love It’ – all shouty brilliance and don't give a shit attitude – brought Charli to a whole new, more mainstream audience, a shift that initially knocked her off course but ultimately lead to her focusing on what was important. “I was trying to force something out that wasn't coming naturally,” she says now. “Then I got my head back in the right place.” Feeling under pressure to replicate that song's success she debunked to an empty hotel in Strangnas, Sweden in April 2014 with a gaggle of friends/songwriters/producers (including Patrik Berger, Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, Pontus Winnberg and Andrew Wyatt) and set about fucking about with her sound, taking a handful of demos with her. It was the year before, though, that Charli started work on what would be her breakthrough solo hit ‘Boom Clap’ with Patrik Berger in his Stockholm studio. “It felt like after that song's success people cared more than they had before and that was nice because it's taken a long time,” she says. “What's funny is that I also feel like by that point when that was all happening, I didn't really care so much about it happening. I felt more relaxed, focusing on the album and experimenting with harder sounds. I knew I wanted it to be guitar-lead and I wanted to record it fast. I haven't written a record to be cool or to be anything - I've just written what's come out of my brain. It's raw pop. For me on stage that's what I am; I'm not polished. I'm bored of that.”
Free of the pressure of trying to replicate a specific sound, she channelled any latent creative frustrations into the songs that make up Sucker, specifically the punchy, sinew-snapping agit-pop of the opening title track. “I think the album's very in your face from the first song. There is an aggression on the record and I think there's a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek tone to it all.” Songs like ‘London Queen’, ‘Break The Rules’ and the self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘Famous’ manage to pull off that fine balance of not taking themselves too seriously but not being throwaway. “’Famous’ in particular, that's something I wrote in half a day with Greg Kurstin and it's not really about being famous, because I definitely don't see myself as that, but it's about going to a party and being an asshole,” she laughs. “To me I see them as cartoons of songs, you know. They're just very aware of what they're doing and caricature-esque. I definitely feel like I have so much more ownership of this record. I feel like I had a lot to say because I'd gone through a lot behind the scenes and in the music industry and I didn't want to write songs about love. I wanted to write about things I'd been unable to say before. I'd been writing so much for other people at the time so the ideas were just flowing out.”
In fact it was the writing for other people – including another hit single for Iggy Azalea in the shape of ‘Beg For It’ and potential new singles on some fairly large forthcoming pop albums – that lead to a whole new selection of collaborators on Sucker including the likes of Steve Mac, Cashmere Cat, Stargate, Benny Blanco and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. Charli has an executive production credit on the album, so just don't assume this plethora of all-star collaborators have diluted Charli's sound or were the result of label interference. This has all come from her. “I did really consciously try and pair all of those people with people who aren't really traditionally pop producers,” she says firmly. “Like Rivers or Justin Raisen or Rostam and I think that's definitely worked and that's what's made it sound completely different to what you'd expect. This is my voice on this album and not any of the other people. I personally don't think that any of these songs sound like what you'd expect from the producers involved. Take ‘Break The Rules’, for instance. It doesn't sound like Steve Mac or Stargate because I've tied this together myself. It is my voice.”
Influenced by the “gang sound” of French Ye-Ye pop, the shouty rock-pop of the likes of the Ramones and The Hives and more than a dash of the experimental pop that suffused True Romance, Sucker – so titled as “kind of like a middle finger and 'told you so' to the people who doubted my validity as an artist” - is an album tied together by a sole vision working outside of the expectations of pop. Who else could move so effortlessly from the “swaggy and luxurious” scuzzy hip-hop feel of Gold Coins (“I just wanted to make a really bougie song,” she explains) to the Beverley Hills-esque Rivers Cuomo collaboration ‘Hanging Around’, to the delicate ‘Need Your Love’, produced by Rostam Batmanglij and the product of some fairly tense recording sessions. “He's so frustrating!” she shouts. “He's one of my favourite people but we push each other a lot in the studio that's for sure. Rostam likes to take his time and get it 100% right – it makes me write in a very different way and I couldn’t do that without him.” Then there's the glorious, full-on pop rush of ‘Die Tonight’, a song originally written about a party scenario that's now taken on a very Charli, darkly twisted new context. “For me, the thing I love the most about that song is when the string synth comes in because then it makes me think of Trainspotting for some reason,” she explains. “It reminds me of the bit where he's dying and he's sinking into the coffin. I had this new thought about the song where instead of it being about a really PG party it's actually about getting really dangerously fucked up and nearly dying. It just sounds very trippy to me now.”
Perhaps the final description of Sucker should come from the lady herself, via the medium of the colour spectrum. While debut album True Romance was “purple and very lo-fi luxury in its sound” and 2013's excellent one off single ‘SuperLove’ was “red Chanel blazers and red lipstick stains”, Sucker is like the musical equivalent of a brilliantly bold and charged colour clash. “It's like a red lightning bolt on a pink background,” she says, summing it all up perfectly. Get ready for the storm.