Sophie: 10 of the greatest tracks by a genius of pop's expressive power

From productions for Charli XCX and Gaika to Sophie’s emotionally shattering solo works, we celebrate a truly singular artist who has died aged 34

Sophie – Bipp

This was the track that brought Sophie, the Scottish producer who has died aged 34 following an accidental fall, to wider attention, and how could it not. The opening sounds like an alert announcing a malfunction on a clown car assembly line, all sproings and sirens; these polished, corporate sonics would become a hallmark of the producer’s early work, revelling in the kitsch of the smartphone age. But unlike producers with similar satiric intentions like James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never, you could dance to Sophie – and Bipp is so deliriously danceable.

The “I can make you feel better” chorus is perfect to mouth to the person you’re flirting with on the floor, and there is real generosity in the arrangement: with an almighty clap only occasionally marking time, Sophie gives you so much space to dance into. This month’s Autechre “mx” showed how well the track works at a lower tempo, too.

Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom

That sense of spaciousness and buffed sheen, coupled with a palpably genuine love for pure pop and a faith in its transcendent properties, meant Sophie would inevitably be courted by big stars. The most A-list of these was with Madonna for Bitch I’m Madonna, which had too many cooks. The wonderfully hectic bridge is clearly by Sophie, but the dull drop is clearly by Diplo, and the two worlds don’t cohere; nor do they on 1,2,3 Dayz Up by Kim Petras, made bland by Dr Luke.

Other stars would benefit much better from Sophie’s ultra-contemporary, puckish and bushy tailed aesthetic such as MØ, Itzy and Banoffee, and there was a sustained collaboration with Charli XCX. As well as adding a sprinkle of corn syrup to Stargate’s production on the excellent single After the Afterparty, Sophie gave Charli renewed edge on the Vroom Vroom EP, screeching around a corner and away from the middle of the road. The title track revs up a Chicago house bassline before abandoning it, and switching to nippy, ultra-minimal trap; the cutesy zooming effects are a good example of Sophie’s sense of humour, enhanced by Charli’s deliberately and amusingly posh rap.

QT – Hey QT

Sophie wasn’t signed to PC Music, but it’s easy to draw a kinship with that label: both seemed keen to rehabilitate the glossier end of electronic music from the dour gatekeepers of the underground, interrogating notions of good taste while generating the kind of unstable high you get from necking vodka Red Bulls. Sure enough, PC Music head AG Cook collaborated with Sophie for QT, an energy-drink-hawking cypher of a pop star who only ever released one song, Hey QT. Whole theses could be written about it, one of the great masterpieces of 21st century pop that takes everything to the limit: wit, cheesiness, performed femininity, and ultimately, your brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

Let’s Eat Grandma – Hot Pink

Another simpatico collaboration came with the Horrors’ Faris Badwan in producing this lead single from psych-pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma’s second album I’m All Ears. A Vandross-level R&B ballad seems to reach an emotional brick wall, smashing into shards of distinctly Sophiean sonics: harsh claps again, and heaving industrial effects that are weirdly reminiscent of the most lurid end of dubstep. Mood swings, in all their prickling dread, catharsis and return to stillness, have rarely been evoked so strongly in music.

Sophie – Ponyboy

Hot Pink features a hallmark Sophie sound that I would describe as “the lurch”, where eerie electronic sounds emerge from a pool of unstable bass and noise. You can also hear it in Yeah Right, a track for Vince Staples, but most impressively in Ponyboy from debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, where the track frequently rears up like the S&M centaur of the title. Queer sexuality comes to the fore in a tale of master and slave that seems to invite Prince’s “curious poses” at the crack of a whip. The “deconstructed club” sound of underground dance in recent years, characterised by smashed glass and states of chaos, was surely further influenced by tracks like this.

Sophie – L.O.V.E.

The emotional dissonance exhibited on Hot Pink was something that Sophie did so well, and early single L.O.V.E. performed it to a chilling extreme. The track evokes an antagonised cyborg fly as voices spell out “love” and shout “jump!” – it’s nightmarish, but then out of nowhere comes a chorus of the sweetest possible twinkles. At its worst, Sophie suggests, this is what love is: hoops to jump through on the way to a numbed squirt of happiness.

Sophie – Is It Cold in the Water?

While Sophie is a master of these kinds of emotional shifts, even better is the mastery of a sustained, ever intensifying single feeling. I can’t listen to this track from Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides without screwing up my eyes or putting my hands up to them – a little like the overwhelming reaction to a particularly sublime breakdown in a trance or techno track, which Is It Cold in the Water? somewhat resembles. But there is no deliverance, no drums, just a suspended state of near-unbearable ecstasy.

Gaika – Immigrant Sons (Pesos and Gas)

As well as pop productions, Sophie was a supremely talented rap producer, making varied beats for Shygirl, Quay Dash, Cupcakke, Leif and more, as well as the aforementioned Vince Staples. This single by London artist Gaika draws together the (sometimes ironic) prettiness of Sophie’s pop twinkles with fat brass notes, and a sensual, undulating rhythm – a keen demonstration, harking back to Bipp, of how Sophie productions could be funkily syncopated as well as Ponyboy-brittle.

Arca – La Chíqui (ft Sophie)

One of the things that marks Sophie out in the very top rank of contemporary musicians is how genuinely avant garde the work is even when firmly rooted in the pop realm, shaking off both the self-importance of the underground and the conservatism of the overground – a rare and valuable quality. This track with another queer electronic genius, Arca, pushed Sophie’s sense of both realms towards art music, using the vocabulary of pop (chatty vocals, peppy beats) to conjure a cyberpunk Babel.

Sophie – It’s Okay to Cry

I’m a straight, cisgender man and others will be able to speak more closely and powerfully to Sophie’s impact for transgender and queer communities, but the mix of self-determination and pride displayed on Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ lead single was profoundly inspiring to me. This was the first time Sophie had emerged from faceless anonymity for a track, a beautiful person with honed biceps and glossy lipstick who stared down the camera to coax out all of our vulnerabilities. The vocal performance, also Sophie’s first, is astonishing: the soft vibrato denoting nervousness but also supple strength, and the close, bald vocal production allow you to hear every swallow, as if Sophie is singing gently into a cupped hand round your ear. This is a power ballad that reinvigorates the tired pop adage that you should be yourself, coming as it did from someone who clearly had a triumphantly nuanced and probably hard-won sense of identity. Our culture has lost a singular talent, who broadened not only pop but also the boundaries of the self.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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