Khalid: American Teen

Dubbed the audio aesthetic of 2017 by his very dedicated followers, and my mission here is hardly to argue with that assessment…

Have you ever been truly jealous? A friend? Colleague? Arch-nemesis, perhaps? Well, I may not be quite there, but it’s sure difficult to know there are recent high-school grads in the world who can expertly create a compelling musical sound, transformative experience, with maturely crafted story-telling to boot. No, I’m not jealous, I’m just not on speaking terms with 19-year-old/breakout star Khalid (Robinson), and we’ll leave it at that.

Seriously, this guy knows how to maneuver a specific tone, through a whopping 15 tracks no less. His style is that of a relaxed R&B artist, a retro-funk songwriter, a modern pop-jiver, and even hints of electric edgings. Yet, all the while neither going too over-hyped, nor too tranquil. Like I said, this album has a very harmonious and straight-centered setting, yet balances said element to portray both euphoria and sorrow, beginnings and endings, opportunity and harsh reality. Just listen to the slightly upbeat factors of American Teen, 8Teen, and the oh-so clear and transporting Winter. Check out the faint glimpses of old-school soul in Location and Another Sad Love Song. How about the fittingly modern and electric melodies of Young Dumb & Broke, Let’s Go, Saved, and Keep Me (another favorite)? Notice the moody-rock elements found in Saved and Cold Blooded. And lastly, how about the perfectly seeping melancholia of Coaster, Therapy (top 3, easily), and Angels? Add to this a perfectly elusive, restrained, and moody vocal performance. Yes, somehow, this boy has created a cerebral and atmospheric experience, and I often feel privileged listening to it (in fact, only Hopeless feels occasionally out of place).

Still, don’t think of this as all style and no substance. If this were a film, it might be described as a great character study. In it, our main protagonist seems to be going through a coming of age experience of sorts. No, heaven knows he hasn’t got it (remotely) all figured out, but he’s still got excitement and ambition on his side. The album opens with the perfect feeling of youth and opportunity. It literally opens with what sounds like an alarm clock, symbolizing a new day and chance. Here, we see his excitement. Khalid makes you nearly feel it along with him. You’ve been there, you’ve felt it yourself. That’s what this album does so pristinely, make you relate (for both better or worse). This excitement isn’t all positive though, Khalid seems to be relying too heavily upon non-restricted and naïve adolescence. A handful of times throughout, he hints about the sensation of getting high and/or drunk. While often times it might be interpreted as symbolic, that is hardly always the case (8Teen states, “D*** my car still smells like marijuana”). Add into the mix a moment or two that lack respect for parents, snubs at commitment, and even hints of sensuality (perhaps in Location and the incredible Therapy). Though perhaps the biggest warning is the explicit label it gets due to two songs, 8Teen and Let’s Go. Which, between the two of them, feature roughly a half dozen S words, and the latter’s introduction featuring 4 F-Bombs (American Teen also has an H). While these content worries do seem to stack, the sheer length of the album, as well as observing other modern R&B records of the same caliber (E.G. Blondie by Frank Ocean and Lemonade by Beyoncé), make it feel substantially more wholesome.

But it’s not all excitement and newness, no there are also areas of doubt, fear, and heartbreak. You see, while the initial tracks display a boisterous youngin’ with ambition, rambunctious havoc, and contempt for commitment, perhaps it’s just all a façade. One which was brought about by reality and loss. You see, while there is a slight energy and excitement initially, the tides quickly turn to show a relationship gone wrong. One where perhaps it cut deep, where he’s still stumbling to keep intact, one where he admits he’d do nearly anything for that old emotional (and at times physical) connection again, and one where he knows full well won’t survive. That’s where much of this album lies therein. A story told before, no doubt, but one with such sincerity, understanding, and drive that it’s hard to dismiss. Khalid expertly crafts this record to be more than a simple boy loses girl ordeal though. Because while that seems to be the focal, there are also defining moments of truth, struggle, acceptance, and redemption even, that seem to be the key theme. You see, he realizes the place he was at was unhealthy (Cold-Blooded, Therapy), he even admits he put others in harm over self (Shot Down). Yet, he still years for lessons and memories from what’s he’s experienced (Keep Me). While the past is hard to shake (Winter), he knows the future holds much, much more (Angels). In the end, Angels is a beautiful ballad of endings. It signifies the end of a day for Khalid. One that has been rough, one that has had challenges, but one ultimately with much to be thankful for. In the song, he hints at the possibility and excitement for much more opportunities. But ultimately, it is a song of thanks for those Angels around him each day (friends, family, even religion he admits) that make it all worthwhile.

This isn’t the most theologically deep album to be sure, but it is an expertly crafted one. One that tells the tale of perhaps a foolish young man discovering the (at times) harsh and unruly world, but one where he concludes the day wiser, more discerning, and with a yearning for better from this life. That in and of itself is pretty great. When you incorporate the very sleek, visceral, and cohesive direction into the mix, and you have yourself a real winner. So, in short, am I jealous? Maybe a bit. But this very mature and moving experience will more than satisfy my mixed emotions.

8/10 (9 for music, 6.5 for content)

Andrew Warnes

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