A pop star releasing music or photos is usually a cause for eternal happiness. But after five consecutive days of impromptu drops meant to promote her new single, “5 in the Morning,” Charli XCX is apologizing to fans. “Me and my friends really hustled to get all this stuff together in a week,” she tweeted after offering a free download to six remixes of the new song. “I’m sorry if it’s not what you were hoping for but I’m trying my best here.”
It is approaching four years since Charli last released an official studio album. During one of the many fruitless build-ups to a new LP, Charli once told Zane Lowe “the albums out in May (of 2017). I’m sure I’ll just get bored and leak the whole thing before then anyway.” So when clean-cut studio singles began mysteriously appearing online last summer, with still no album release in sight, the train to Charli’s career left the station and long since found its way off the tracks with Charli, her label and an alleged group of hackers all claiming to be in the driver’s seat.
While touring her last album Sucker in 2014, Charli took on a BBC documentary project that chronicled her perspective as a feminist in the music industry. She conducted her own interviews, backstage at festivals and in between sets, employing herself as a full-time filmmaker while fulfilling the role of a full-time pop star. Halfway through the tour, Charli had enough of the pop circuit. She stepped down from her headline spot, citing a need to create in order to return to a place of happiness. The “Boom Clap” and “Fancy” era of her career that saw her break onto pop’s main stage ended abruptly, if not uncharacteristically by the genre’s lofty standards.
But Charli didn’t waste time getting back on the horse. She had met SOPHIE, the then-illusive internet producer, at a writing camp in early 2015 and only two weeks after what would have been her final date on tour the duo released their first collaboration. Charli traded in school uniforms and guitar licks for black latex and synth hits. Fellow UK producer A.G. Cook and his PC Music associates (described as a sonic “critique of late capitalism” by Pitchfork around the time) were also enlisted in what appeared to be a makeover, but was more of a callback to the earlier stages of Charli’s career when her music was made for Myspace and London raves. “Vroom Vroom” sutured whiplash to sugar pop, throbbing drums blasted from a lavender Lamborghini, doppler effect and all.
SOPHIE and PC Music helped Charli craft her next full-length album, XCX3–the shorthand placeholder name for the project, her third studio record. As 2016 came into focus, Charli revealed the album had already been finished. “I’m just gonna put it out and the music can do all the press for me,” she mused at the NME Awards in February. Less than a week later, an EP extension of “Vroom Vroom” was announced as the imminent release.
The project debuted on a newly established record label owned by Charli called Vroom Vroom Recordings. The decision laid the groundwork for her aspirations beyond the role of singer/songwriter but with a barebones website, minimal releases from its signees (RIVRS and Cuckoolander) and almost no social media posts since the summer of 2016, Vroom Vroom Recordings falls somewhere between a neglected pet project and a music shell company needed to free Charli’s new sound.
On the first episode of her Beats 1 radio show “The Candy Shop,” Charli described a segment dubbed the “Marmite moment” where she would play a song that she loved, but her friends thought she was crazy for liking. “This is a song that’s gonna split people’s opinion, you’re either going to think I’m an idiot or you’re going to think I’m a genius–obviously the right answer is genius.”
Vroom Vroom, a hard-hitting four track EP, would be the Marmite moment of Charli’s career and there’s little to suggest her (proper) label, Atlantic Records, did much else but spit it out. “Vroom was not us trying to appease anyone,” she explained to The FADER months later. “I think my label got afraid and I think a lot of people were confused. But I just felt that I wanted to–I just wanted to do that.”
The project’s biggest impact was on Charli’s fanbase. Listeners who began following after the film The Fault in Our Stars were likely tuned out. Devotees saw the change as exciting growth that was simultaneously grounded in her early career while PC Music fans praised the collaboration as deserved mainstream attention for their underdog sound. This new era of her career melded fans who not only enjoyed the Marmite, but wanted to injected it into their veins.
Live performances in 2016 teased what sounded like the full length cut to Charli and Sophie’s collaboration (heavyweight producers Stargate and BloodPop were later confirmed to be involved as well). Unreleased songs like “No Angel,” “Taxi” and “Round and Round” had those in-tune with the new sound paralyzed in euphoria, awaiting an elctro-pop coup de grace that never came. Instead, they got treated to a track with Lil Yachty on Halloween.
Ending the year with “After the Afterparty” was a reminder of Charli’s mainstream commitments. After eight months of unsupervised fun, the party was put on hold. Charli promised a May release date for her album while on the record with Zane Lowe and hummed about leaking it before then anyway.
The next leg of the “After the Afterparty” press tour, about a month later, delivered a more concise stump speech. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly she revealed the Sophie-led album was still in the cards, but the live teasers like “Taxi” were now simply demos with no place on the project. Again, Charli slipped in the idea of a leak. “I don’t know how many (songs we recorded), but we did a lot. It’s cool because we can pitch them or leak all of them or whatever.”
A month later, at the start of 2017, the goal posts to the album were still moving. Charli told Rolling Stone that half of the project would resemble the “After the Afterparty” sound, in what felt like a compromise with the label for a more feasible follow-up to Sucker.
Charli didn’t pull any punches looking back on her previous LP soon after. “I made some rash decisions with Sucker,” she told Q Magazine the same month. “Like the song ‘Break The Rules.’ That song was so bad. I hate it… I was like, ‘Whoever sings this song is an idiot’… Cut to: four months later, it’s on my album and it’s my new single. I fucked myself.”
The “half and half” directive would soon make a high-stakes debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where Charli performed “After the Afterparty” and a new track simply dubbed “Bounce.” With A.G. Cook—now her creative director—laid passed out on stage, Charli delivered a cheery but mellow performance of the former before letting loose on what felt like the main event. “Bounce” fired DJ hype lyrics and a radiant chorus through Cook and SOPHIE’s strobe light, rubber wrecking production, predictably unmarketable to the average late night talk show viewer while her fans watched on in awe.
The TV spot was likely the first nail in the shelf to the SOPHIE version of XCX3 as both performances have been largely scrubbed from the web. A week later, back at the NME Awards, a familiar tale unfolded as Charli brushed off talk of a new single or any album-related info. Instead, she revealed a forthcoming mixtape produced by Cook. Between her rampant recording schedule and not wanting to let fans down, the project would parlay while the label weighed another delay to whatever was becoming of the album, post-late night market test. Frustrated by apparent pushback on the idea, Charli would tweet a week later, “You have no idea how fucking hard it is to just release a free fucking mixtape in 2017.”
Number 1 Angel would see the light of day in March (for fucking free, no Number 1 Angel Recordings needed) with little external promotion. The sound combined Cook’s PC Music expertise with Charli’s pop affection. Tracks like “3AM,” “Roll With Me” and “Lipgloss” were a continuation of the sticky “Taxi” sound from the previous year, coupled with moodier romantic takes as a centerpiece. At times, Number 1 Angel sounded like a project put together in only a few weeks, but more importantly, it was Charli doubling down on the PC Music sound and honing in on a more fluid music identity.
The prospect of a May album being released only two months after the mixtape hadn’t been officially ruled out, though it did seem unlikely. I reached out to Atlantic Records in April about any forthcoming press opportunities, hoping to gauge if an album was still in the cards, but was quickly spun onto more timely clients, mostly David Guetta.
Charli’s next label-backed move was, however, already inked at the time. She mused on Twitter about a perfect world where she could tour with her friends and collaborators, including Cupcakke, Brooke Candy, Dua Lipa, MØ, Abra and Tinashe. A few days later, she was announced as the opener for Halsey’s upcoming fall tour, third on the ticket below PartyNextDoor.
Shortly after the release of Number 1 Angel, a member of the team responsible for her go-to fan “update” account reached out to congratulate the pop star on the mixtape forray. The account, @Fckyeahcharli, had been in contact with the pop star herself on previous occasions, mostly since her career turn in Vroom Vroom, though they began posting updates during the Sucker era. The encouragement was met with what one of the posters thought was another scoop for fans.
Charli revealed she had a WeTransfer file–the same service she used to release official music as recently as last month–that she planned to drop soon as well. @FckyeahCharli relayed the message to fans, who expected studio quality versions of “Bounce,” “Taxi,” “No Angel” and other XCX3 songs to be on the way. But with info of the WeTransfer now public, Charli went silent on the idea. Before the end of March, the first of hundreds of unreleased Charli XCX songs would begin appearing online.
The infrastructure for sharing leaked pop music in the digital age has evolved in recent years. Lanaboards, a Lana Del Rey fansite, operated as ground zero for the singer-songwriter’s own infamous leak saga which resulted from a hacked hard drive in 2011. After Charli’s mixtape, talk of leaks escalated from the occasional murmur—typical of any major artist’s sporadic leakage—to fans suddenly showing off playlists with dozens of unreleased tracks, spanning multiple eras of Charli’s career.
The expected album release month of May came and went as the leaks quietly bubbled beneath the surface. Charli presented a picture of label unity in a short interview with The FADER in mid-July, declaring she had no intentions to go independent–not that anyone had really speculated at that point, outside of of recap of label drama by The Guardian in March. Shortly after, she would return to unsupervised fun out in Tokyo with Cook and playing a DJ set for NYLON Japan, still showing off her SOPHIE collaborations before circling back for a proper single release in “Boys” to end the month. The song was a rare, non-PC-influenced track that Charli didn’t write herself (despite being crowned as songwriter of the year for the SESAC Pop Awards a few months prior). To compensate she was allowed the director’s seat for the video where she called back on her previous experience to help give the song a viral push (by way of GIFs) and praise from Laura Mulvey.
With the Halsey tour looming, Charli acknowledged the leaked music for the first time in an interview with Gogirl!. She quietly revealed in the final sentence of the interview that her album wouldn’t be out until next year, “because people keep leaking it and I have to rewrite everything all over again”. When asked about the album delay on Twitter, Charli had responded in a since-deleted tweet, “Album not delayed. It’s just being released at the right time for me. Label fucking love me”. Hysteria reached a fever pitch while clean-cut, studio singles with SOPHIE’s imprint popped up left and right online (“I Wanna Be With You,” “Queen Lizzy,” “Down Like Woah,” “Can You Hear Me” and more).
The leaked songs would be traded, sold and boasted about by fans on social media and pop forums in an electrifying and often toxic underground community, but the most valuable songs (“Taxi” and “No Angel”) had yet to surface. While seemingly anyone with a download of “Bounce” (the Kimmel-performed song and one of the earliest and easiest leaks to find) would anonymously claim to be a hacker with access to Charli’s Google Drive, the freshest leaks were often originally posted on Twitter via burner accounts, deleted once the audio files found their way into the fanbase nervous system.
One of the more visible accounts, @1nt0th3d4rkn3ss (read “into the darkness”) appeared with leaks on August 20. The following day, Charli tweeted “i like the darkness,” an inconsequential message to those following the solar eclipse in the United States, but a firebomb of conspiratorial fuel for those whose only eclipse experience would be staring into a bright computer screen all hours of the night, refreshing forum pages— for what it’s worth, Charli is documented as not being in the continental U.S. during the day of the eclipse.
Fans who shared songs via Google Drive that day claimed Atlantic Records was hot on the trail seizing their accounts. More outlandish claims and narratives about Charli, the label and the hackers were churned out as fast as fans could post their thoughts, minimal evidence rarely included, but ultimately (and surreally) any fan with an internet connection could get there hands on some of the very real fragments of XCX3 as well as troves of songs from the early stages of Charli’s recording career.
@1nt0th3d4rkn3ss would upload songs to SermonCloud (an audio sharing website for clerical and religious material) a few days later before riding off into the digital sunset. With their hard drives full of unreleased songs, many fans felt they had won a battle, though not quite sure who they were fighting with or against.
During the tour with Halsey a few leaks continued to spring up, mostly either snippets of unheard tracks or hard-to-find early career music. In November, Charli briefly addressed the leaks again in an interview with Noisey. “My email got hacked and people leaked most of (the album),” she explained. “So I think I’m just going to start again.”
Fans perceived the rewrite as losing a project they deserved to have. Many would vow to boycott any new leaks in solidarity, while collective anger quickly turned toward the mysterious hackers and Fckyeahcharli, pointing to the WeTransfer incident as either an opening for hackers to attack or a botched opportunity for Charli to cleanly offload the songs herself (Fckyeahcharli denies Charli ever intended to share a WeTransfer file but confirmed that she communicated its existence).
After finishing tour in November, Charli raced to release another mixtape before the end of the year. A week after the final tour date, she announced Pop 2, another A.G. Cook collaboration with an even more expansive list of guest features. Where Number 1 Angel seemed to pull in different directions, Pop 2 offered a tracklist of emotional helium molecules pinging off one another while still gracefully pushing the black latex balloon of a project into the sky. Charli had mastered the ability to cook with Marmite and while questions stirred on the outside, it was clear her studio time with Cook had an incredibly precise direction.
In an interview with Vulture, Charli explained that she didn’t know when, or even if, she’d be putting out an album after Pop 2. A demo of the mixtape’s closing song had leaked during the Halsey tour and the final version (“Track 10”) exchanged an optimistic, dancehall vibe for a darker, sharp dismantling of the project’s sound. Her patented “It’s Charli baby”, usually a call for energy on tracks throughout her career, were the final words of the project, whispered above the buzzing hum of a neon light on its last legs, ready to shut off for good.
As 2018 began, the leaks surprisingly continued. Those subscribed to the belief that Charli was spilling the goods herself had a harder time explaining why the continued drip would be beneficial to her own interests. Others pleaded into the abyss for the hackers to relinquish influence over her career. Songs that Charli teased from the studio as recently as January found their way online in the form of snippets a few months later, but still no sight of the most popular songs “Taxi” or “No Angel.”
Leaked music emerged the same day Charli led the charge against former Recording Academy president Neil Portnow for telling women in music to “step it up” after the GRAMMYs. New songs would appear on sale for Bitcoin on the infamous Music Mafia website before Charli revealed she still had plans for the now distantly recorded tracks. “I see u guys tweeting about girls night out / no angel / bounce / etc and to answer ur questions – those songs are still very much alive and well and v important 2 me!!”
In the meantime, Charli would score a spot on one of the industry’s hottest tickets, a Taylor Swift tour, while her innovative Pop 2 sound was praised everywhere from Pitchfork to the New York Times. “I like going to really weird clubs,” she told the Times in March. “So I guess I’m not going to do nice radio songs. Maybe that’s selfish. But it’s difficult to be convinced into something.”
Unfortunately, her tour setlist included little more than radio songs from what felt like a past lifetime (“Boom Clap,” “Fancy” and “Break the Rules”). To compensate and renew affection for her previous XCX3 tracks, Charli planned a handful of side-hustle mixtape showcases which featured guest appearances from her diverse crew of collaborators. The shows were capped off with the previously leaked SOPHIE-produced song “Girls Night Out” and recent shows even included performances of “Taxi” and “No Angel” (which fans still believed were being held hostage by the hackers, only increasing demand for Charli to free them herself).
When it came time to promote another label-approved single last month, Charli whipped up her five days of 5:00 am content promo. After including “exclusive music” alongside “remixes/fun stuff” in the announcement, fans let their expectations off the leash in the hopes of original XCX3 material. On the final day, Charli tweeted out a WeTransfer that included a set of remixes for “5 in the Morning,” not “Taxi,” “No Angel” or “Girls Night Out.”
“I’m dropping new songs each month. Not each day,” she responded to sporadic fan outrage. “Brb going to scream into a pillow now.” Two days later, she announced an upcoming Spotify meet and greet in London, asking fans to DM her their favorite unreleased tracks for a chance to attend (“I know you’ve all heard them cause someone fucking hacked me, shout out to that person,” she reiterated while explaining the giveaway). The morning after the session, “No Angel” leaked online.
The infamous track, in all its glory, did not pop up on Twitter, or behind a sketchy download link deep in the belly of a pop music forum. It appeared on the music website Fizy (a Turkish streaming platform) alongside another song called “Focus” that she recently performed live for the first time. Of the dozens upon dozens of leaks over the past year, the most iconic one was a classic industry gaff–an advanced copy of soon-to-release music quietly distributed and prematurely slipping free.
A few days later, after a midweek release of her “5 in the Morning” music video, Charli hinted at an official release of “No Angel,” having finally been granted permission to fulfill her stans’ wildest dream. But the followers who had long demanded it the most could only feign surprise. Scrolling back through the eclectic timelines of fans celebrating the coveted song, still hoping for a copy of “Taxi” to appear and lamenting over WeTransfer files, it’s hard to picture anything but a career wedged between the the rock of a uniquely involved fan base and hard place of a clumsy record label slowly reissuing trust.
At a recent Pop 2 show in London, Charli introduced her “Girls Night Out” finale by advocating everyone to “‘at’ my record label, they should fucking release this song”. The recognizable SOPHIE synths drummed the crowd and Charli drifted into the fog while friends and collaborators flooded the stage. She seemed to enjoy ending her Pop 2 shows this way, melding the performance into a single, chaotic rave. Out with her girls, on top of the world while gripping the microphone, her fans screamed out all the words to a song that has never been released.
“Louder!” she demanded through the chorus, blending into the bobbing, neon silhouettes, the line between stage and crowd almost fully dissolved. “Sing it to me!” she shouted again, not ready to let go, her microphone still firmly in-hand.
- Words: Robert Kelly