One of popular music’s more recent delights is artists young and old ushering seemingly antiquated musical styles like jazz, funk, and blues into the 21st century via modern technology. If you ain’t privy, peep: In the tradition of Almighty Bey as Oshun unearthing the rich audio-historical linkages between deep Southern blues, rock, and Southern rap on Lemonade; of the funkified punk orbiting Anderson .Paak’s kirked-out rap; of the pop wizard Bruno Mars’s fidelity-to-glossy ’80s R&B and modern drum machines — it's clear that the music industry's favorite way of processing pop nostalgia is through reinterpretation.
In fact, nowadays, it’s almost become a gamble for a musician not to stretch him or herself past pop's hip-hop-inflected present. Nineteen-year-old upstart Khalid is the latest example of this trend. His hit single "Location" at once calls back to the primordial soul of the 1950s and ’60s, when harmony-averse solo cats like Nat King Cole sang languishing love tunes, and looks forward to the electro-soul dissonance of James Blake and Frank Ocean — and it's working, to the tune of 18 million YouTube views and counting. His debut album, American Teen, continues in the same vein, doubling down on a smart brand of emotional relatability. Add Khalid’s name, then, to the short list of millennial musicians who are pushing soul into the future without hip-hop as a guiding hand.
Khalid wrote “Location” as a frustrated high school junior, just after he and his mother — who served in the military for much of Khalid’s upbringing, first as a supply technician and then as a singer in the Army Band — moved to El Paso, Texas. On it, Khalid paints loneliness in sleek angles over a tapestry of twinkling guitars, which unwind into spacious R&B elegance as he celebrates modern technology’s interconnectivity while simultaneously admonishing 21st-century dating norms: “I don’t wanna fall in love off of subtweets / Let’s get personal.” The song connected instantly with a generation that revels in the access we have to potential lovers all across the world, but still deals with the vexing effects of digital love and distance. Amid more woozy, wavy production, the rest of American Teen continues to find Khalid in an electric desert, attempting new ways to intone and interpret old romantic problems in the information age.
It’s easy to come away from the first half of the album feeling envious of Khalid’s innocuous perspective on Americanness — or maybe just envious of his youth. From the surreal patriotism of the title track (perhaps stemming from a lifetime of revering his mother, and in turn, the flag) to his certainty that his lover will call back on “Saved,” this is an album of boundless self-confidence. And it's a testament to his genuine artistry that listeners may find themselves wanting badly for him to be right on both accounts. Even so, the distance between his slogan-like words and the reality of life in America in 2017 can be dizzying. When he chants, "Oh, I'm proud to be an American" at the end of "American Teen," he risks turning off listeners who are hungry for more nuance in pop conversations about politics. Thankfully, he spends the rest of American Teen sliding slowly away from the “American” aspect of the album’s title and focusing on the “teen” to much greater success.
Ultimately, Khalid seems most comfortable when he's singing about the collision of teenage indulgence and love among his friends. On “Young Dumb & Broke,” Khalid is “so high at the moment,” but his friends/lover/audience take a little convincing to get there with him: "What’s fun about commitment when we have our life to live?” The feeling is contagious, thanks in part to Joel Little’s jovial production, even if the story Khalid is telling still lacks specifics. His vocals trip lightly across the chorus in a way that makes you want to sing along, particularly when he slips into wordless celebration. The frivolous subject matter effectively dares you to turn off parts of your brain in order to enjoy the song — and both here and on "8TEEN" a few tracks later, it pays off.
But if American Teen is front-loaded with vibrant hope, the back end of the album takes a surprising and worthwhile turn into freezing isolation. The lush acoustic guitar of “Cold Blooded” feels like a chilling shower, creating a mood that's equal parts ambient and emotionally torrential. Khalid’s fraught lyrics ("Surrounded by your skin / You feel my heartbeat vibrate violent”) add to the atmosphere of thick misery. He ends up doing his best and most empathetic singing when he's sinking into heartbreak.
Later, Khalid seeks the warmth of a former lover on “Winter,” finding himself “drunk off the lies she told.” Deserts get cold in winter, and the artist, like all of us, has to adapt to the changing seasons. It’s here, at the intersection of bone-chilling temperatures and lost love, that we hear Khalid at his most honest. Fine-stitched harmonies that harken back to his time in youth choirs drape the standout “Shot Down,” as Khalid pines over all that he’s given up for love: “Over my family I put you first … / I don’t hear from the friends I thought were mine too / But I hold on to the poems I would write you.” Given what’s often at stake when we give ourselves over to love, it’s clear why Khalid might elect to live in unencumbered bliss on those earlier songs. At least he can find that fleeting happiness with his homies, even if it means he comes home alone when the night is through.
Older listeners — meaning anyone older than 19 — might run into some difficulty in listening to American Teen. That's ultimately because this record isn't really meant for us — and that’s fine. Even if its purpose is to ingratiate and entertain the youth, this album still doesn't go quite far enough in speaking directly and specifically to the dissatisfaction that often motivates youthful debauchery. But Khalid has time to figure out how to articulate those muddier parts of the human experience. For now, his cruise along the axes of heartbreak is a promising joyride.