Charli XCX Recalibrates the Pop Game With Career-Best ‘Brat’ LP (Critic’s Take)

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Somewhere along the way, the concept of pop stardom got severely warped. The 2010s – an absolutely mind-boggling decade that we’re still trying to figure out – brought about a bevy of pop stars and pivots that prioritized not just a banal understanding of “relatability,” but also a specific kind of feigned honesty and vulnerability. In an effort to stoke the increasingly parasocial connection between consumers and creators, pop stars packaged up “refreshingly honest and vulnerable” lyrics that didn’t actually say much at all about their authors and sold them in more variants and configurations than there are editions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The obsessive curation of the relatable pop star threatened to completely swallow up the reckless bombast and brash provocation of pop’s most gifted and most imported auteurs – until Charli XCX’s superb sixth official studio album, Brat. 

As an artist who has helped steer the evolution of pop over the past decade and change – while sporadically reaching some of the most staggering commercial heights of pop stardom (Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers, Grammy nominations, smash soundtrack singles) – Charli XCX has always been miles ahead. Now that the top 40 world has mostly caught up with her – think Beyoncé’s “All Up in Your Mind” (2022) or Camila Cabello’s “I Love It” (2024) — an album like Brat feels remarkably accessible. Nonetheless, at least half of that accessibility comes by way of Charli’s own maturation; Brat finds her finally embracing the full scope of her specific brand of pop stardom, not through cynicism or snark, but by genuine self-reflection soundtracked by some of the boldest and most audacious production pop music has heard in years.  

“I went my own way and I made it/ I’m your favorite reference, baby,” she begins the album by proclaiming, on delicious pure-pop opener “360.” The opening oscillating synths immediately situate the LP’s sonic universe as the soundtrack to the video game that is life – specifically the high-octane lives of hot girls, party girls and, of course, pop stars. On “Club Classics,” she dubs herself as such and demands to dance to her own music in the club, and on lead single “Von dutch” she reminds us – and herself – that she’s our “No. 1.”  

For an artist who’s often been incredibly frank about her insecurity regarding where she stands (and how she’s perceived) in the pop ecosystem, these songs could read as Charli trying to convince herself of her greatness. In reality, she’s always believed those things, but those sentiments are just one component of her self-understanding. Being a hot girl pop star is terribly messy business, and as Brat barrels through its 15-song tracklist, Charli completely submerges herself in those murky, ever-troubled waters. 

Brat is filled with homages to rambunctious late ‘90s French dance music, as Charli searches for the biggest and brightest sounds pop can offer, and those sonic touchpoints are vital to the album’s success. “All this sympathy is just a knife/ Why I can’t even grit my teeth and lie?/ I feel all these feelings I can’t control,” she sings in the chorus of “Sympathy Is a Knife,” the album’s third track and first taste of the nuanced examination of pop stardom Charli emarks on throughout the album. On the Gesaffelstein-helmed “I Might Say Something Stupid,” she feigns contentment with being “perfect for the background”; “Girl, So Confusing” finds her coming to terms with empty lip service from peers that only exacerbates how out of place she feels; and “I Think About It All The Time” introduces motherhood as a very real path for her, one that’s truly beckoning her attention – for better and for worse – for the first time.  

These moments where Charli opens up on a whim are as disarming as they are charming – and they never contradict the flashier come-hither anthems like “Talk Talk.” The negative connotations of the word “brat” are paramount to the album’s tone, but if a “brat” is to be understood as a poorly behaved child, then Charli sources her childlike tendencies by feeling the full extent of all of her emotions – more of a skill than most realize, and one that many people lose as they transition to adulthood. 

Brat reaches its emotional apex with “So I,” a downright heartbreaking ballad dedicated to the late SOPHIE, a pop and dance music pioneer and frequent collaborator of Charli’s. “When I’m on stage sometimes I lie/ Say that I like singing these songs you left behind/ And I know you always said, ‘It’s okay to cry’/ So I know I can cry, I can cry, so I cry,” she coos, her slightly hoarse voice hanging on by a thread as a tidal wave of tears threatens to wash the rest of the song away. Charli hasn’t ever sounded like this on a record; this is the vulnerability that we’ve been sold facsimiles of for the past decade in pop.  

Of course, Charli is able to display this level of nuance in her vocal performance because the LP’s sprawling soundscape – which features contributions from forward-thinking producers such as El Guincho, A.G. Cook, Cirkut, George Daniel and Omer Fedi – allows her the space to. Whether it’s the heartbeat-nodding throbs of “Everything Is Romantic” or the electro-jazz breakdown in the back half of “Mean Girls,” Charli is granted an entire sonic galaxy to stake her claim over. 

Six studio albums and several seminal projects since she first hit the scene over a decade ago, Charli seems to have finally found herself, while charting limitless futures for dance and pop music in the process. We hear so much about how pop music tends to cast aside its leading ladies once they hit their 30s, but a now 31-year-old Charli is only getting more indispensable. She is pop music – in all of its glorious sleaze and self-doubt and sex and somber introspection. And personifying the totality of pop while synthesizing it into some of her most evocative work yet reveals more about who Charli is than any amount of faux-diaristic, needlessly verbose lyrics could anyway. 

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