Title: American Teen
Label: RCA Records
Release Date: March 3, 2017
True to the title of his debut album, American Teen, Khalid is an 18-year-old singing about 18-year-old feelings.
The rising artist’s music fits what a lot of musicians of his generation are doing these days: recording a piece of mind unfiltered onto form of music, and then upload it almost immediately on SoundCloud. Naturally, the online platform is responsible for where he’s at, going from a few likes to a major-label backing in span of a year. He doesn’t change his formula much despite the formalities for American Teen, but it turns out for the better.
A few of his early SoundCloud singles make their way on to American Teen. The most successful out of the batch, and one of his best so far, is “Location,” a bashful cry for a text back. Khalid crafts one sticky slow jam by removing all but that unwinding synth from the spine of recent Eurohouse-flavored R&B jams. Others crank it up a notch, some ride a smoother groove, but the moody summer wind of “Location” breezes by American Teen no matter the tempo.
While Khalid’s sound resides in the middle of R&B nostalgia and future house, his lyric sheet can only come from a writer from the present. The main hook of “Location” is pure millennial mumble: “Send me your location,” he asks, like a person who’s more comfortable asking for a crush’s Instagram username than their actual phone number. To forget a crush’s memory, he doesn’t burn their photos but deletes it off his phone en masse as he clutches to their cell digits in “Saved.” Love letters don’t get trashed in Khalid’s world. Text threads do.
This type of talk should not feel surprising from an album titled American Teen, especially with Khalid openly showing his age. The record kicks off with the title track and another song named “Young Dumb & Broke” about, yes, being a young, dumb and broke high school kid — at least he’s admitting to it. One track is called “8TEEN,” a song featuring a car reeking with weed and a stressed-out Khalid nervous his mom will get on him about it. “My mom is gonna kill me,” he sweats, but the song feels carefree as water in a suburban pool, embodying the innocence of “all the stupid shit that the young kids do.”
More than party and bullshit, unrequited love fills the journals of Khalid in American Teen. He seems to miss past crushes more than he loses current ones, calling out to them from a far, far distance. He spins simple poetry, sitting on rhyme schemes comfortable as his production. But what he lack in complexity as a writer, he makes up for it with an earnestness that speaks directly from his big heart. “Over my family, I put you first,” he sings in “Shot Down,” and his words throughout the album similar throw huge claims that sum up just how much love keeps his world in place. Though these verses may make sense more as emotional drafts than complete thoughts, it’s a raw expression fit for an artist of his kind.
While Khalid captures attention when checking out his singles individually, American Teens starts to slowly wear out as it stretches on during its 15-song length. As his pool of topics dries out, it becomes more apparent he still lacks some depth in perspective to flesh these songs out into stronger confessionals. He has yet to learn how to fully focus on specifics as a writer. His voice remains in a middle range whether he’s overcome by bliss or a crushing sadness. But the great thing about teens is that they’re still maturing. “I’m not the best at showing my emotions,” Khalid admits in “Another Sad Love Song,” and indeed, he still got a lot to learn to better his craft on American Teen. Though the young musician already has done more than enough to impress.