His face was full of youth and innocence, not yet tainted by age or sin. He sang with a voice untouched by the weight of puberty, more pure than bodies baptized in Lake Minnetonka. He was Chris Brown, a teenager who arrived one random day and would become one of the many teen idols of my adolescence, of my generation. The girls adored him, the boys respected him―it was more than the music. Chris captured the hearts of those who were also young and innocent, those his age who wanted an artist to call their own.
After performing to a crowd of close to 500 souls in Atlanta, RCA buzzmaker Khalid prepared to meet and greet anyone who cared to patiently wait in line for an encounter with the teenage songbird. Usually, artists meet a small number of fans before a performance, but the announcement didn’t come until after he left the stage. I found this to be rather strange. He should have been tired, heading back to the bus and preparing for the next date on his tour, but instead, he signed autographs, took pictures, selfies for Snapchat―for almost two hours after performing Khalid did what he could to make his adoring fans feel special.
Most of them no older than the 19-year-old, under different circumstances they might’ve been classmates preparing for college, or at least students who crossed paths in high school. I watched as their eyes lit up, their drunken grins beaming, the excitement on their faces as they embraced―I knew then that Khalid would be the artist they call their own, a teen idol born from the internet age.
Before the release of any album, Khalid won their hearts. The singles he released spoke of letting sorrows go, sending dropped pins for rendezvous, and confessing to keeping a former lover's number saved―it’s a well-crafted teenage panorama that gives off the feeling of someone living in the moment. American Teen is an appropriate title for a debut album that touches on the cornerstones of the teenage experience―love, heartbreak, adventure, drugs and the acceptance of being young and naive.
Khalid truly lives in the moment, he isn’t nostalgic for the past or looking forward to the unknown future. American Teen is an artist capturing the soaring emotions of a boy meeting the world.
Three Standout Songs:
It's rare for an album's biggest single to be a true highlight, but Khalid captured something special with “Location,” the kind of modern-day love story that perfectly articulates the dance between man and woman, between boy and girl in an age of relationships, followers and purveyors of vibes. It’s that moment before intimacy, before love, before heartbreak; “Location” is the rising action before the climax and the anxiousness and anticipation of receiving a reply. This is what dating is for a teenager who didn’t live through MySpace and totally missed Black Planet, but who will be able to tell his children about how a dropped pin lead him to the woman of his dreams. With production this dreamy, subtle and pure, it’s hard not to get lost in the warmth. This will be the song that he’ll be remembered for, not because of it being a catchy jingle, but how he illustrated a situation that many have lived and many will live.
Angst is a teenage emotion that Khalid hasn’t been possessed by. There’s no venom in his bite, no scorn in his heart. “Winter” is a song about love failing, the coldness of heartbreak and rejection in relation to the merciless cold of winter. It’s a recurring theme in Khalid’s music―acceptance of a love that has withered. “Winter” is a story of a young man who knows that there’s a tombstone where his love used to be, and all he asks is she promises to carry his love, to live on as a memory. I love how upbeat the production is―bright horns, bubbly chords, uptempo drums, all of this contrasting a broken man. Much of the album is sunny, full of light, synths the shade of golden hour yellow, but the songs aren’t always about being young, wild, and free―to be young and in love is to know that love doesn’t always last, summer ends and the world grows cold.
The keys tell you it's going to be something special, a heaviness that feels heavenly, the kind of keys that play as you walk into a church. These are the keys that play at the beginning of “Angels,” the final song on American Teen. Khalid’s voice appears like a blinding light; it is weightless, the way his voice soars it feels as if angel wings are attached to the notes. It is one of the most riveting performances and the most beautiful songwriting on the entire album. This is Khalid’s poetic pen at work, the imagery leaps from the song, the concept of seeing angels in a living room is a true moment of spiritual awakening. Even if you aren’t religious, even if you don’t believe in angels, it is the power of this performance that will truly lift you several feet from the ground. Beauty, pure beauty.
Khalid has a face of innocence, but his voice carries a tone that is rare and refreshing. His voice isn't packed with power, he isn’t going to blow you away with a thunderous falsetto, but there’s strength in his softness, sincerity in his gentleness. He understands his voice and has gathered production that allows his vocals to shine.
Most of the album is warm, like preparing for summer camp. There’s a balance between the carefreeness of youth and the heavy strain of being brought down by the weight of lost love. Love and blooming adolescence are the subjects Khalid knows best; they are attacked from various angles, and a lesser talent would suffer from repetition, but as a songwriter, he finds unique ways to tackle common themes. There’s nothing new on American Teen that hasn’t been explored, that hasn’t been sung about, but Khalid doesn’t try to reinvent cliches, rather bringing them into a modern context.
This is the world he knows, feelings he has felt, and he's crystallized them as music so that the world can relate. Khalid’s debut is memorable because it is relatable. Kids will relate, teenagers will relate, and also adults―because stories of love and loss are universal, they aren’t exclusive to an age. He may be unapologetically youthful, but he isn’t childish. He's a teen idol with a strong voice and a mature perspective. If he continues to snapshot his present, being a singer that exists within the moment, he won’t just be a teen idol, but a star that will grow old in this business.
Khalid is an artist of the moment, with the potential to be the artist of the future.
By Yoh, aka American Yoh, aka @Yoh31.