Being a teenager can be many things. The one thing it’s guaranteed to be is memorable. Eighteen in particular, brings worries of graduating high school or chasing one more late summer night with your friends until you all go off to college or the workforce in the fall. It’s the first time in your life that adulthood no longer feels optional. For Khalid, an El Paso singer that came onto the music scene last spring, his 18 was a little different than his peers. In addition to skipping class and preparing to graduate, he was also starting to garner recognition with his first single ‘Location’. Whether he knew it or not, the song would change his life forever. With that song currently charting at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and with potential to continue growing, the Texas native could transform into a full blown star if his debut album builds off the strength of his first single. With the release of American Teen, that is exactly what the now 19 year old Khalid hopes to do. Backed by a major label, solid promotion and radio play, the cards seem to be in his favor.
Khalid starts the album off appropriately with the title track that awakens the listener with the sounds of birds chirping and an alarm clock ringing. Even if his voice may sound like that of a seasoned veteran, the lyrics here remind you that he is unapologetically young. With the title track, the swirling sounds of ‘Location’ are gone and something much more synth filled and upbeat takes its place instead. While the song isn’t quite as immediate as ‘Location’, it’s refreshing to hear a young artist not attempt to recreate his first hit right off the bat as others have tried and failed to do in the past. Many have slapped Khalid with the infamous “Alt-R&B” label, but to throw him in the gauntlet with the rest of those artists is not only inaccurate, but also a complete disservice to his skill as a crossover pop artist. Evidence of his pop star sensibilities are present at every twist and turn of the young singer’s debut. ‘Hopeless’, a song at the albums midpoint has melodies and a backdrop that would not only fit in on pop radio, but stand out on it. Backed by another dance floor ready foundation, ‘Let’s Go’ fits into this same category as well. The beats on American Teen’s more pop leaning songs pulsate similarly to what you may hear when you turn the dial to your local hit station, but where they elevate beyond the standard pop-fare is Khalid’s voice. There’s a rugged quality to his singing that gives his music a more raw and authentic feel than the glittery shimmer of his pop contemporaries.
It’s this same singing voice that works as good if not better on the slower, more stripped down moments of American Teen. The aforementioned ‘Location’ speaks for itself and even in the sequencing of the album nearly a year after its release, it holds up. In that same vein is the lush ‘Coaster’ which contains bare-bones piano accompanying his voice as he laments about lovers who were not on the same wavelength. Using a roller coaster as a metaphor for the ups and downs and unpredictable nature of relationships, the song is one of the albums strongest moments. Love lost and miscommunication become common themes throughout the albums duration. The difference here is that it’s from a perspective much younger than other R&B acts out today. This is an artist who hasn’t even spent a day in college unless it was for a performance or sneaking into a party as a high-schooler. To think he was just leaving middle school when the R&B stars of today were making their debut not only makes me feel old, but shows just how much the likes of Frank Ocean, Miguel and The Weeknd have influenced the current generation. Their influence is felt all over this record, but never imitated. The strongest moment on the entire LP comes with the penultimate track ‘Shot Down’. His voice warbles and cracks almost to the point that it lives up to the songs title. Lines like “Happy 17, I saw us two and you saw three, I guess our lines are structured like a haiku” represent an artist who at times displays engaging songwriting with the potential to be even more with subsequent releases. ‘Shot Down’ could easily be the singers follow up hit and with good reason.
While avoiding most of the pitfalls and missteps of other young artists’ debuts, Khalid doesn’t completely steer clear of them. There are still moments that feel more label motivated with their inclusion as opposed to artist motivated. ‘8TEEN’, for example is one of the few moments that pulls from the cliché “ooo-ooo-ooo’s” of top 40 choruses. The lyrics also lose their innocent charm and verge on boring and simple. Even if this is what the artist intended with the songs title, it still results in one of the albums weaker moments. Suffering a similar fate is ‘Another Sad Love Song’. None of the weak spots on the album are necessarily bad, just bland in comparison to the rest of the record. Running 15 songs and just under an hour long, American Teen also suffers from some moments of filler. They are few and far between, but one could only imagine how tight an album ‘Teen’ could be if edited just a little. It’s almost like a term paper that could have been great without the fluff, but it’s hard to hold it against him since he hasn’t written enough of them to know that yet.
There’s no doubt that Khalid is blossoming into a star right in front of our eyes. American Teen is not the definitive album that will ultimately turn him into a superstar, but it is an impressive step in the right direction. The songs contain enough ear-worm melodies to make Khalid a viable pop star and continue the ascent he started in 2016. It’s almost better that his debut isn’t perfect because it gives him room to grow which he undoubtedly will. Much can be said about potential hits and ear worm melodies but the true star of ‘Teen’ is Khalid’s voice and his debut proves it’s one we’ll hear for years to come.
Repeatable: ‘Location’, ‘Coaster’, ‘Shot Down’, ‘Cold Blooded’
By Scott Evans