LISTENING TO VROOM VROOM, Charli XCX’s collaborative EP with PC Music affiliated producer Sophie, is like watching a duel between a perfectly competent swordsman and a master with one good hand tied behind their back.
The former would be Sophie, a producer who’s usually a lot more bold than this. His debut from last year, Product, featured eight tracks that dazzled in their execution and sound design even when they bordered on irritating. For Vroom Vroom, he tones his style down, ostensibly to give his collaborator more room to do her thing. This is admirable. But Charli XCX—a rising star who’s made some fantastic pop already, particularly on 2014’s Sucker—bombs so thoroughly I almost wish Sophie had actually tried to drown her out.
Part of what made Sucker such a treat was how proudly dumb it was. Charli, who by her own admission “couldn't give a fuck if people didn't think I made a ‘cool’ album,” bellowed lines like “when I’m driving on the wrong side of the road/I feel like JFK” with glee and joyful conviction. She stuck on the right side of the line between guilelessness and stupidity—which, alas, can’t be said of Vroom Vroom. If these songs are any indication, Charli should never, ever rap—but she does for most of this EP, resulting in lines like “ice cubes on our tongues because we like to keep it freezy.” Even Charli’s buddy Iggy Azalea would retch at a clunker like this.
An equally egregious problem with Vroom Vroom is that none of this music really works. It’s not abrasive enough to scan as an anti-pop statement like Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. But there’s also nary a good hook to be found. In fact, this might be the first pop album where I’ve been able to see the hooks coming before they hit. With the exception of “Paradise”, every song’s title is the last word said before the drop, so by the time I got to “Secret (Shh)”, I was just waiting for Charli to say “shh” so the damn thing would drop already. It’s woefully anticlimactic.
A Sophie-Charli XCX album isn’t a terrible idea on paper. Both artists are proudly pop and proudly British. Both like sensory overload, and both exist on the fringe between indie and pop stardom—Charli has one major hit so far, the Fault In Our Stars commission “Boom Clap”, while Sophie landed a production spot on Madonna’s Rebel Heart. Furthermore, the abrasion of Sophie’s productions isn’t necessarily a bad fit for Charli. Charli’s a child of punk, and the dense, crunchy pop-punk on Sucker can provide a similar thrill to Sophie’s sugar-rush histrionics.
It’s a shame, then, that Charli blew this collaboration so completely. Vroom Vroom might have worked had Charli written some better hooks, or actually put some effort into her raps, or just not rapped at all. Or if even Charli had coasted, just as she does here, and Sophie taken the reins. Or if they’d just gone out and made something completely ridiculous, filled with songs like “Trophy”—easily the best song here, if only because that Pulp Fiction sample is weird enough to make the song just a little bit mind-bending.
But maybe this isn’t Charli’s fault but Sophie’s. Part of his and PC Music’s brand is his focus on anonymity. Sophie’s real name (it’s Samuel Long) wasn’t public knowledge until years after he debuted; it’s still unknown how many of the label’s artists are separate from label founder A .G. Cook, whose music under his own name sounds an awful lot like label “superstars” like QT, GFOTY, and Hannah Diamond. Perhaps Sophie was trying to fit Charli into his own musical vision by forcing her to sound as anonymous and pedestrian as possible. It’s a shame, then, that he picked a singer with so much personality. C