In the couple of years leading up to her debut album, True Romance, Charli XCX issued a slew of singles, EPs, and mixtapes that mixed moody synth pop with rap and R&B into a sound billed as "neon goth." Despite that somewhat awkward description of her style, Charli does have a flair for chiaroscuro, switching easily from brooding ("Set Me Free") to sparkly ("Take My Hand"), sometimes within the course of one song ("You're the One," one of five previously released tracks here).
In some ways, she's the opposite of Grimes, who sprinkles just enough sugar over her quirky musical ideas to make them accessible.
Like Quentin Tarantino, to whom True Romance's title pays homage, she has a flair for combining a wide array of pop culture sources into something fresh and familiar, as well as a fondness for strong female characters.
These songs are filled with tough girls in varying stages of love, most strikingly on the equally vindictive and catchy "You (Ha Ha Ha)," which punctuates its heartbreak with bitter laughter.
While Charli's rapping won't threaten many MCs, her laid-back delivery is reminiscent of Uffie as well as late-'80s and early-'90s pop, particularly the charmingly awkward "flow" of the Spice Girls, whom she counts as a major influence.
Elsewhere, she smooths some of the edges of her previous work -- not that True Romance's pop isn't engagingly strange, and strangely engaging.
Inventive productions are as vital to her music as her bold persona; she's worked with Lindstrøm, Balam Acab, Jezus Million, and other innovative producers, and tracks like the dreamy, R&B-tinged "So Far Away" help her blur her influences into something she can call her own.
Her songs could easily be all surface and attitude, but there's also a genuine emotional pull to them: the excellent ode to romantic familiarity "What I Like" is peppered with enough details to sound as cozy as a boyfriend's sweater feels.
Previously released songs like "Nuclear Seasons" and "Stay Away" remain highlights, but new songs like "Black Roses" -- one of the best blends of really-real feelings and unashamedly artificial sounds here -- show that Charli didn't give away all of her tricks and treats on her EPs.
Since quite a few of these songs were already road-tested, it's not surprising that this is a strong debut, but just how consistently catchy and personal True Romance is might raise a few eyebrows.