In her hit single "Break the Rules," Charli XCX makes one thing clear: "I don't wanna go to school!" she insists over a propulsive synth-pop groove.
Yet on a recent evening, school was precisely where the young British singer found herself. Charli XCX was booked to play the homecoming dance at Aspire Pacific Academy in Huntington Park as part of a videogame company launch of a new title with music by the singer. So there she was in the school gym, belting out "Boom Clap" to several hundred students in suits and candy-colored dresses.
Standing in a fluorescent-lighted hallway before her three-song set, the 22-year-old said she'd agreed to the gig because she grew up loving teen movies such as 1999's "Jawbreaker," in which pop-punk band the Donnas perform at a school prom. "But when it comes to stuff like this, I'm really selective with what I do," she added. "You're not gonna see me dressed as a sandwich on the side of the road with a sign that says 'Buy my album.'"
On "Sucker," set for release Dec. 15, Charli XCX thrashes through 13 songs full of razor-sharp keyboard licks and snotty attitude. "Everything was wrong with you, so breaking up was easy to do," she sneers in "Breaking Up"; in "Famous," she and some pals threaten to crash a party and "act so shameless, just like we're famous."
With bracing, punk-inspired production by Patrik Berger, Justin Raisen and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, among others, the record is irresistible, but not because she's aiming to please. And yet, as her recent homecoming adventure indicates, the singer born Charlotte Aitchison knows this is the moment for a push. When her major-label debut, "True Romance," came out in early 2013, Charli XCX was a hipster favorite several years removed from her early experience making videos at art school and posting songs on Myspace.
Now, though, she's a recognizable presence who's had a hand in two of the biggest hits of the last 18 months: Icona Pop's "I Love It," which she co-wrote, and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," for which she sang the hook. Over the summer "Boom Clap" rose to No. 8 on Billboard's Hot 100 after it was featured in the blockbuster "The Fault in Our Stars."
"Her off-season between albums — I mean, you can't even call it that," said David Saslow, general manager of her label, Atlantic Records. "Those were such key strokes for her." As a result, Saslow added, the label is marketing "Sucker" much more intently than "True Romance," which sold a mere 18,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
This weekend Charli XCX appears with Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande at Jingle Ball, the annual holiday concert presented by L.A. Top40 radio station KIIS-FM (102.7). Later this month she performs on "Saturday Night Live."
KIIS program director John Ivey said the serrated sound of "Sucker" fits well alongside hits by Lorde and the Swedish singer Tove Lo. (Raisen called the approach "'I Love It' on Ramones steroids.") But Ivey added that Charli XCX's music also reflects a seriousness and a clarity of purpose that reminds him of a different kind of artist, one who likewise moved from writing songs for others to becoming a huge star on his own.
"She's got a bit of that Bruno Mars thing," he said.
Charli XCX said that watching "I Love It" and "Fancy" explode — then having record executives press her for more songs exactly like them — made her want to do two things at the same time on her new album.
"On one hand, it's clearly very pop," she said. "On the other, it's me critiquing this weird world that I've somehow ended up in. That's why I called the album 'Sucker.' I'm pointing a finger at all the boring people I've met in this industry who take themselves so seriously and think it's important to have meetings about clothes." She laughed.
"But of course I'm aware that I'm part of the pop circus."