Who says True Romance is dead? Charlotte Aitchison never exactly disregarded the dreamy pop album that marked her critical breakthrough as Charli XCX, but she has looked back askance at that era of her career. "I just wanted to make sure people thought I was cool," she told Complex about her motivations behind the 2013 LP. "That's what I was worried about."
In turn, full-length follow-up Sucker seemed almost a repudiation of that album's strengths; brash and adrenalized instead of personal and spellbinding, more in-your-face than in-your-bedroom. But while Charli's new Number 1 Angel mixtape isn't necessarily a throwback to True Romance, it is the closest she's come to that album's unique brand of gorgeous, diaristic hypno-pop since.
The tape arrives at an interesting time for Charli, who's already partway into the promo cycle for what should be her upcoming proper third LP, which she has described in no uncertain terms as her "club" album. "I just wanted to make a party record, and it feels like I finally unleashed my full inner-partier," she told Billboard in October 2016. To that end, she'd already released the Stargate-produced, Lil Yachty-featuring lead single "After the Afterparty" (and its accompanying video of zombified debauchery), and debuted the frenetic banger "Bounce" on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with a full-bodied performance that delivered dancefloor energy at workout intensity.
But Number 1 Angel calls time on the party-music phase of Charli's catalog. "This is partying," she explained of the mixtape to Dallas radio station Hot 93.3 in January. "But this is more just, like, crying into the champagne than drinking it." In other words, it's after-the-after-the-afterparty music -- or maybe in a different room from the party altogether. The beats are a little slower, the production slightly more distant, the hooks the tiniest bit more abstract.
Opener "Dreamer" plays like a foggy memory of a club banger, its booming drums and riotous hook both pitched and paced down to a strobe-lit crawl. "White Roses," seemingly a callback to Romance's "Black Roses," is even cloudier, Charli's vocals swaying over moaning bass and a slow-clapping beat as she promises, "We're gonna melt down, gonna disappear into the sun."
If that last phrase sounds borrowed from another of the week's new pop releases, it's unlikely the original owner minds. "Yesssss baby this mixtape is so sick i die for your perfect 90s pop melodies," Lorde tweeted at Charli on Friday (March 10), the day of Angel's release. Her "90s pop" reference is a little confusing -- nobody's going to be confusing PC Music head honcho A.G. Cook's spacey-in-all-ways production for classic Mariah Carey anytime soon -- but it does get at one of the tape's key strengths: While the haze of Angel is pervasive, it's never so thick that the songwriting can't pierce through. When Charli's choruses come crashing in --- the ocatve-bounding "you know I love you too-oo" coo on "ILY2," or I the "sticky-icky like lip-glossssss" callout of closer "Lipgloss" -- they strike to the core, as familiar and comforting as if they'd initially hit at formative moments, and then lived with you for 20 years. '90s in spirit, certainly, if not in execution.
She picked the right guests to invite along to get her in that spirit, too. While the ascendant Yachty's appearance on "After the Afterparty" was an endearingly awkward product of Twitter wish fulfillment, her collaborations on Number 1 Angel are lower-profile, but more seamless. Starrah and Raye's guest verses on "Dreamer" both herald Charli's return and set the tone for the tape to follow ("Charli, where you been?/ Yeah, this party's kinda shit/ Should we dip in your whip?"), while Uffie's bratty vocals lend "Babygirl" enough of an edge to prevent the song's sugar rush from being too headache-inducing. The clutchest cameo comes from Mo, who shows up late in album highlight "3AM (Pull Up)" to help convince Charli to resist the guy she keeps backsliding with, turning her chorus from "You know the words that got me fallin'" to "I can't believe you had me fallin'." All the guests come off like spiritual XCX siblings, ensuring whatever party atmosphere the record packs mostly just makes you feel like you're among friends.
Charli's never made a bad record, or the same record twice, and it's one of her most commendable traits as an artist how she's managed to swerve successfully between so many different lanes within the pop world -- whether it's the turbo-charged Powerpuff-pop of Sucker, the cartoonish mutant pop of last year's Sophie-produced Vroom Vroom EP, or even what we've heard of the grungy pop-punk from her famously shelved Sweden album. But nobody does this as well as Charli XCX: Pop songs with hooks big enough that you want to spray-paint the walls with them, but delivered with such intimacy that they feel like they're being whispered to you in the middle of a crowded room.
Strip away whatever underground posturing taints its memory for Charli and what still makes True Romance so special is that it went 12 for 12 with those songs. While Number 1 Angel is distinctly on its own wavelength, more self-assured and less starry-eyed than Romance's bliss-outs, that combined impact of pop at both its biggest and its smallest gives it the same kind of narcotic power. She may conquer the clubs with her next set, but this tape proves then when it comes to bedroom pop -- either for when you're dancing by yourself, or entangled with someone else -- that top spot is hers for the taking whenever she wants it.