There is a beauty in that predestined moment when a song comes on the radio that feels like it was written for you and your friends, and you all begin singing the words together in unison without hesitation. There's an exhilaration found in an uncertain young love, just as there is growth in that first heartbreak you didn’t see coming. There's an excitement found in the freedom of driving on the highway with the windows down after school lets out, just as there is magic in falling asleep in an Uber and not waking up until your friend is shaking you because you've arrived at your destination.
There's a relief in passing final exams and sneaking home without getting caught after a late night hanging out in a parking lot or your friend's parent's basement. There's a tremendous power in not only believing, but also knowing, that you are more than your hometown suggests and the day to explore beyond its familiar borders is finally drawing near.
Khalid, a 19-year-old soul singer from Texas, knows these feelings all too well — because he's still living them. With his debut album, American Teen, he toasts to all of these relatable late-teenage phenomena with an authenticity that proves while he may be wise beyond his years, he's in no rush to grow up overnight either. In turn, that same particular aesthetic is found in his distinctive voice itself, with his maturing vocal talents shining with a polish that suggests he’s been in the game for much longer than he actually has.
Factoring in that this teenage recording artist just graduated high school a year ago — roughly around the same time Kylie Jenner was spotted lip-synching his now-viral hit single "Location" on her SnapChat — this is exactly the magnitude of a debut that doubles as a breath of fresh air.
For his major-label debut, the El Paso native declared his release date (March 3) as the day that will change his life forever. And now that the manifested milestone has finally arrived, Khalid is winning what amusingly feels like a safe bet. While the odds are now stacked in his favor, it wasn't always that way. His own self-awareness gives new life to what otherwise could have been ignorantly written off as just another SoundCloud rapper getting lucky. Khalid did much more than find his way into the spotlight at the right place and at the right time — he came prepared for what happens next.
While our music climate has undeniably, and at-times frustratingly, evolved into a machine where all you need is one single with the potential to be a hit record and a perfect storm of calculated opportunities to take it there, Khalid's debut on RCA has 15 of those, and each one has a beating heart and glowing spirit of its own. It's difficult to skip over songs on this record, challenging the current listening process of new music. American Teen is equal parts cohesive story and collection of separate tales, with its nuanced emotions tied together by a young man experiencing his teenage years as completely and unapologetically as possible. With American Teen as evidence, he’s in it for the long haul while still enjoying every step along the way.
Khalid's lyrics are a direct reflection of his genuine personal story, and his transparency elevates him into an assumed role of becoming a voice for the youth that is as brave and confident as it is vulnerable and honest. In the dismal age of Trump's presidency, it is important, shocking and revitalizing to hear someone — a Black someone, no less — say he is proud to be an American again and be completely serious. As Khalid looks towards his bright-eyed future on his title track, "American Teen," he restores a newfound hope without letting go of being a realist.
His maturation finds strength in a way that doesn't skip over the tough times but addresses his current reality in a way that embraces hardship. He grew accustomed to this as a dreamer who moved around the country with his single mother, whose job in the U.S. Army dictated a lifestyle constrained by both discipline and impermanence. He blindly trusts his struggle is part of the process towards getting to the proverbial other side, each time learning from his mistakes and proving himself right.
With dreams bigger than a hometown not even originally his own, the lead single is perhaps the most culturally impactful on the record, but songs such as "Young, Dumb & Broke," "Saved," "8Teen," "Hopeless," "Nobody Hangs Out Anymore" and "Let's Go" swiftly challenge that claim, each gloriously amplifying a voice of the youth (and for the youth) that is well on its way to capturing a global audience in a new, refreshing way. Khalid is an outsider who naturally assumes the role of a leader, something that is impossible not to commend, if only his humble, calm demeanor would allow that compliment to go unchallenged. On American Teen, adolescence is measured by state of mind, and not by a calendar dictating when life can begin, and Khalid’s “no better time than now” mindset is as remarkable as his experimental production choices. With American Teen, he covers a lot of melodic ground, managing to incorporate the evident influence that '80s pop has had on him personally without completely turning off his peers who gravitate towards the increasingly streamlined trap-infused R&B movement spearheaded by August Alsina, Bryson Tiller and Tory Lanez.
As the ambitious 15-track collection unfolds, Khalid details that "oh s**t" post-graduation moment not wanting to fall in love with social media's illusions and rising above the preconceived notion that your life has already been chosen for you by someone else. His debut album discusses how love may be born through technology, but the yearning for a larger IRL connection will never be satisfied by a subtweet. Khalid is an old soul who will never be entirely defined by the universal teen anthems found on his debut album, helping to further solidify the sultry and seasoned Frank-Ocean-meets-Bill-Withers vibe his music emits, while carving a lane of his own on the same highway his idols have traveled down.
As we get to know Khalid through his music, it becomes clear that just because he intuitively knew his moment would one day arrive doesn't mean he shouldn't still celebrate — and celebrate we will.
(Photo: Kacie Tomita/RCA Records)