Burgeoning pop superstar turned experimental indie-pop darling Charli XCX continues the wave of alternative and quirky beats and melodies kickstarted by last year’s Vroom Vroom EP. Working once again with the talented producers at PC Music, she begins to swing back in the direction of commercial viability, finding a happy medium between the two styles released in the past. XCX applies her trademark sassy and confident lyrics and enormous choruses to instrumentals that sound like they might be from another planet. The 10-track Number 1 Angel ultimately becomes an opportunity to lose any preconceptions you might have about bubblegum pop music and enjoy the wild ride it takes you on.
The project is a largely collaborative effort with many artists who occupy XCX’s niche in the musical world. Fellow alternative pop artists Raye, Abra and MØ all appear to deliver verses of their own, which fit in so well with the unique world created here that they are often hard to distinguish from XCX’s. Travi$ Scott protege Starrah appears to deliver her adept autotuned flow, and in perhaps XCX’s most audacious move, the final track “Lipgloss” is dominated by rapper CupcakKe, frequently made the butt of a joke on the Internet for her outlandishly sexually explicit lyrics but coming across strangely at home here. When another female voice joins XCX on the mic to offer their own perspective on the situation at hand, it strengthens these tracks.
The production is handled entirely by PC Music artists, giving Number 1 Angel a truly distinct sound. The beats hit harder than most pop music, giving a feel geared more towards something like hardstyle EDM. These beats are glitchy, synth-infused and percussion-heavy, recreating the atmosphere that accommodates the childlike and carefree vocals that PC Music producers are known for on their own releases. Prominent labelmates such as founder A. G. Cook, Easy FX, Danny L Harle and SOPHIE all contribute.
Number 1 Angel opens with its best song, “Dreamer”, which shows the effect that XCX’s simplistic lyrics can have. While they can certainly fall into the patterns of repeating the themes of partying, fame and money, the confidence she exudes combines with these beats to outstanding effect at times. Her vocalizations have an almost percussive quality that links directly into the trap-influenced beat provided by A. G. Cook. Her voice acts in the same way an electronic filtered swing would when it is modulated mid-chorus: “I’m a dreamer … step-step out the Beemer, bout to do it big, stretch-stretch limousine-uhh…”. Add two verses from Starrah and 19-year old Raye that harness the beat perfectly and you have the year’s best party track.
The project is quite consistent in its steady delivery of catchy hooks and energetic beats, making for a concise 10-track project that never overstays its welcome. Every track feels like it belongs here. The passion XCX sings with makes it sound like she believes she is creating a timeless pop masterpiece, and it can honestly come off this way as a result. “Emotional” feels like it’s already been a huge hit for years, and when the big chorus hits it almost feels like a wave of nostalgia. Speaking of which, “Babygirl” is another absolute standout, featuring a 90s-influenced sound. Sugary-sweet synths and percussion back XCX’s only rap verses on the album – triumphant proclamations of how great she looks, what else would they be?
XCX’s voice is not exactly built for auto-tune, and this becomes evident when it is contrasted with someone like Starrah. Although a track like “Blame It On You” is more than saved by the innovative integration of XCX’s voice into the beat in its second half, it stands out as a weakness here due to its blander lyrics and use of the pitch correction system. It takes away from some of the power she has in her full-voiced “I’m here” belt. Since the producers here are primarily EDM artists, they tend to extend some weaker motifs for too long. SOPHIE might be PC Music’s most creative member, and he has always been hit-or-miss for me with the completely off-the-wall sounds he attempts. His one track here, “Roll With Me”, features a repetition of XCX’s voice pitched up very high that falls flat.
Despite any reservations that can come from a skeptical perspective of the artistic merits of boisterous pop music that artists like XCX are known for, it is very difficult to not have a great time listening to this project. PC Music will always provide something different to listen to, and while XCX’s lyrics are frequently rather lazy, this fits with her persona and really works at times for precisely this reason. Sometimes you just have to joyfully submit to material like this.
Favourite Tracks: Dreamer, Babygirl, Emotional, 3AM (Pull Up)
Least Favourite Track: ILY2