Khalid isn’t so much a star as a supernova. Two years ago, the then-teenage Texas R&B singer’s coming-of-age debut, American Teen, cemented him as the voice of his generation. Songs like “Young Dumb & Broke” became irreverent high school anthems and made older listeners pine for that youthful carelessness. Now, at 21, he’s an inescapable pop sensation with five Grammy nominations and a handful of hit singles already under his belt. If he keeps up this streak, he could go down as one of the greats. We’d be all the better for it if he does.
In a time where pop stars are transient and trite, Khalid’s music hits you like brisk air-conditioning in smoldering heat. While his modern R&B peers opt for trapped-out beats and drug-filled sex fantasies, the young singer is earnest and wholesome, embracing a sound that’s equal parts ’80s nostalgia and contemporary bounce. His sophomore LP, April’s Free Spirit, finds him maturing into a serious, introspective adult.
If American Teen was the house party, Free Spirit is Khalid mopping up the mess and picking up the red Solo cups alone. The former features the song “8TEEN,” which sums up his life at that age with the refrain: “Let’s do all the stupid sh*t that young kids do.” On Free Spirit, he gives listeners an update with the sober sequel, “Twenty One.” “I’m in pain, but I’m to blame,” he sings over a ’90s pop-rock guitar riff. He even questions his masculinity over the stomping drumbeat of “Self,” wondering, “Does my raw emotion make me less of a man?”
Contrary to its title, Free Spirit shows us a 21-year-old trapped in his insecurities rather than reveling in his legal drinking days. And though he’s looking inward, Khalid can still make a righteous bop. “Better” brings a hip-hop swagger to his lovelorn moodiness, while “Talk”—produced by British house duo Disclosure—is a bubbly, mid-tempo strut. Both have been radio and party mainstays for months. Don’t expect them to go away anytime soon.
Beyond the music, Khalid is a role model in the making. Despite his impressionable age, success doesn’t seem to have gotten to his head. He’s left his parents’ house in El Paso for LA, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. In April, when a Twitter troll attempted to call him out for turning his back on the El Paso community that supported him, Khalid set the record straight with a $30,000 clapback, announcing the launch of the Great Khalid Foundation. “It starts in El Paso, and my goal is to provide resources and help bridge education and prominent music programs in the city,” he tweeted. In May, the foundation handed out three $10,000 scholarships.
Even before that philanthropic act, Khalid was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019. In her essay for the magazine, Alicia Keys sang hopeful praises for the young star’s future. “He has a beautiful journey ahead of him, and I hope he accomplishes things he can’t even imagine yet,” she wrote. Considering Khalid’s two-year run, that feels like a sure bet.
Khalid with Clairo. June 22, 8 p.m., $40-$90. MGM Grand Garden Arena, 702-531-3826.