The aura of hype that surrounds 20-year-old Charlotte Aitcheson, aka Charli XCX, has been brewing for years, ever since she first dropped demos back in her mid-teens. Tracks like '!Franchesckaar!', 'Emelline' and 'Art Bitch' indicated that we had an unstoppable pop force on our hands – after honing and sharpening her sonic savvy, we were treated to a string of mixtapes, guest spots (who can forget her contribution to one of 2012's hottest tracks, 'I Love It' by Icona Pop?) and singles that caused heart palpitations. Given how much pressure was placed on Charli XCX, it would be absolutely just to expect an element of failure within her (technically second) debut, 'True Romance' – anything or anyone whose praises are sung so highly and so regularly will have a tough job of living up to that larger-than-life image and ridiculous expectations. Very few manage it. But Charli XCX, herself a character that defies reality, rises to the challenge and then promptly bitch-slaps it into oblivion.
Massive single 'You (Ha Ha Ha)', featuring that contorted Gold Panda sample and the most bittersweet chorus you'll ever hear gave us an early hint of the scale of talent we're dealing with. She's immersed in the zeitgeist, versed in produceral megalodons and at least as Tumblr friendly as frequent comparison Marina Diamandis. 'Nuclear Seasons', cloaked in lurching bass and handclaps is what No Doubt should've returned with. The similarities between Charli XCX and Gwen Stefani, vocally, are strong, but the former does well to distance herself with the gnarled and icy synth stabs. Super Ultra mixtape single 'Cloud Aura', featuring stripper turned rapper Brooke Candy, is as swaggerous as any primo hip-hop you'll stumble upon – that serpentine, vaguely Middle-Eastern synth hook in the chorus is both filthily sensual and biting.
We've heard a fair amount of what is placed on our plates here. Some of the sounds are yoinked from her mixtapes, some are previous singles from earlier in her career – there are fresh cuts on offer, but the overall result is a portfolio-esque record. It showcases her highest moments, almost flawlessly, and maybe it would've been nice to hear some more unheard material, but when the tracks selected are roped together, we're presented with an album that lacks weak links or lulls, which is never a bad thing. Besides, the young singer's work can be notoriously difficult to track down – she's all but scoured the internet of her first album, 14.
'Grins' is warped proto-popstep: shuddering bass and half-time percussion is drowned underneath a synth-nami. It's a tad spectral, and the vocals breed to create wispy harmonies and a multitude of scattered noises. 'Lock You Up' emits 80s pop charm. From the reverb-coated percussion to the scalic synth earworms, it's smooth and summery, boasting a breathy, infectious chrous: "I always wanted you, sometimes it's hard / What do I do to lock you up inside my heart? / I wanted you from the start / I want to lock you up inside my heart." The dusky R&B of 'So Far Away', replete with speak-rapping á la Jamie T, is a sultry slice of 90s nostalgipop. It's cheesy, but it's a good cheese.
She's been slapped with labels like goth-pop, tumblrwave, neo-rave, indietronica, electro-noir... the list goes on. Maybe her sound could be squished into pigeonholes that nichey, but in reality, this is an LP brimming with unabashed pop. It's scintillating, razor-sharp and effortless, but most in-your-facedly, it's caked with pop glitter. The only thing that detracts from the surface-level lustre and stops us being musical magpies is that it's got an enormous, bloody, scarred heart beating underneath. The harrowing heft of her emotional maturity broaches a range of topics within the microcosm of love, and her – presuming this is in some way autobiographical – apparent romantic traumas are gut-wrenching. It's true that everyone goes through heartbreak and amorous pitfalls, especially in adolescence, but Charli XCX, in her delivery, forces you to feel feelings you'll wish you could repress. Nothing strips a glimmering pop record of its superficial veneer like lovelorn angst.