Your favourite reference, baby: How Charli xcx's BRAT brings her career full circle

Call her a main pop girl, she's so inspired.

Something about this Charli xcx album campaign seems different. It's not just that BRAT sounds and feels like Charli's most confident output since 2017 (which it does), or that it's received wall-to-wall critical acclaim (which it has - BRAT is currently tied for the best-scored album of the year on Metacritic). 

No, this time it feels like - truly, for the first time - everyone just gets it. Not just those in Charli's beloved cult fanbase of Angels, BRAT seems to have transcended into a place no Charli xcx project has truly been embraced by before...the mainstream.

To tell the story of Charli xcx trying to break into the mainstream would be to tell the story of her entire career to date; she has, at times, seemed to embrace the thought of becoming a quote-unquote 'main pop girl' before fleeing back to the safety of the underground for records like Number 1 Angel, Pop 2 and How I'm Feeling Now, projects that may not have exactly set the charts alike, but which helped usher in an essential reset to Charli's career trajectory. 

These three bodies of works - two mixtapes made and released largely without the involvement of Charli's label after her third album (code name: XCX World) was leaked then shelved and an album made in collaboration with fans over 30 days during the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown - are, to these ears at least, the foundations that BRAT was built upon; heel-snapping, glass-cracking club beats with a heightened emotional intensity, with songs taking you to the highest-highs and lowest-lows of a night out.

BRAT uses these three records as a jumping off point, but there's a heightened intensity and focus now. There's the rush of euphoria on the electronica touch of anxiety anthem Sympathy Is A Knife, gossip hotline Girl, So Confusing and the emotional ballad So I, a tribute to the late, great SOPHIE, one of the producers (alongside AG Cook) who acted as an architect to Charli's career re-calibration, making her music faster, harder and weirder than it was before.

The LP's opening track, 360, distills Charli's 15 year career into a sentence; "I went my own way and I made it. I'm your favourite reference baby." There's no doubt, too, that in the past decade, Charli has become the go-to reference point for many up and coming artists; you can hear her in the songs of Slayyyter, of Chappell Roan (Super Ultra Modern Graphic Girl, in particular, reads like Chappell's attempt at making a Pop 2 track) and, most notably, in Camila Cabello's indie-sleaze makeover for her new album C, XOXO.

BRAT may run on the rampant, feral energy of a night-out with the girls, gays and theys where you don't stop until 7am, sleep for an hour and then do it all over again, but it would be insincere to say that Charli's mainstream moment doesn't sound like pop music, because it does. Sucker, Charli's ambitious second album, may be oft-maligned by fans in 2024 due to its perceived insincerity, but BRAT takes the lessons Charli learnt from that era and applies them well. Sucker tried, and mostly failed, to bend commercial pop music to Charli's will. BRAT appears to have achieved that straight out of the gate.

This year marks 11 years since the release of Charli's highly-influential if often underlooked debut album, True Romance. An album indebted to the sights and sounds of 80s pop, from Pet Shop Boys and Kate Bush to more electronic acts like Kraftwerk and Daft Punk, BRAT functions in the most pleasing way as the answer to the question True Romance posed; what if Charli XCX was the future of pop music?

Under a bone-shattering synth-line, Nuclear Seasons (still one of Charli's greatest accomplishments) imagines falling in love as akin to surviving a nuclear fallout. But on BRAT, the nuclear winter has passed and we've taken refuge in the club, stained with cigarette smoke and popper burns.

As it currently stands, BRAT is in an intense three-way race to top the Official Albums Chart tomorrow with Taylor Swift and Bon Jovi. If it manages to stay on track, BRAT would be Charli's second Number 1 album in the UK following Crash, her 2022 attempt to 'sell her soul' and play the major label game (which it achieved spectacularly on the goth-pop lead, Good Ones).

Charli seems to have largely disowned much of her CRASH output now, but it stands to reason that her ironic heel-turn into a 'sell out' era helped blow the doors open to the rapturous reception BRAT has gotten, where Charli's sound and visual ideas have not been so diluted. It's the most xcx she's ever been.

But no matter of its chart position, one thing is sure; BRAT will debut with the highest first-week sales of Charli's entire career in the UK, the true sign that her vision for what pop music could be is finally being understood.

Charli's vision of pop music may have fluctuated and changed over the years, but now it feels we're back at the start. The prophecy has been fulfilled, finally.

BRAT is out now via Atlantic. Charli's position on the Official Albums Chart will be revealed live on The Official Chart on BBC Radio 1 tomorrow from 4pm.

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