Pop stars may be cool. But they are not, as a rule, chill.
In this, as in many things, Khalid Robinson is an exception. The 21-year-old bushily bearded Texan (who professionally ditched his surname around the time he became the El Paso high school senior Most Likely to Record a Top 10 Summer Jam With Halsey) is almost certainly the first performer I’ve ever seen tie his own shoes onstage at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. Someone from security helpfully held the mic while Khalid, casually outfitted in a Minnesota Wild jersey, reversed red ball cap, and baggy pants, saw to his own kicks.
This most G-rated of wardrobe malfunctions was in keeping with the hardly chaste but rarely lascivious vibe of the relationship songs that the 15K or so fans at the Xcel last night, most of them appearing old enough to drive but not to drink, were suitably chill-deficient enough to sing back at Khalid, word for word. Khalid’s voice is a hug, alternately spongy and abrasive, sexy but in a textural way, in its implications rather than its demands, promising whatever level of intimacy you’re comfortable with.
Released when he was 17, Khalid’s debut album, American Teen, emphasized and nearly idealized the ordinariness of being a kid, and with a precocious sense of perspective. Khalid re-imagined “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” as a comparatively mundane two-hour string of 3 a.m. text messages. These boys and girls fool around and overanalyze how they feel afterward, less concerned with whether someone liked them than with how much and in what way and for how long they might like them. And though they smoke weed (who doesn’t?), they also worry that the smell might get them grounded—in fact, you might have to go all the way back to the ’50s to find a pop songwriter so conscious of the looming presence of parents in actual everyday teen life.
American Teen was high-concept yet guileless, and it made Khalid famous enough that his 2017 Minnesota debut was moved from a quickly sold-out First Avenue date out to Myth instead. A few less distinctive multi-artist hits charting in the wake of that debut, particularly the Halsey joint I already mentioned (“Eastside”), made Khalid a shoo-in for an arena tour after he released Free Spirit, a follow-up album that accentuates the muzzy upper end of his falsetto for a mood that’s more R&B than the pop of its predecessor.
The songs from each album sat comfortably side by side during Tuesday night’s show. The eager anticipation of the new album’s title track led into the first of the night’s many youth anthems, “8TEEN,” which follows the not entirely apologetic “and I still live with my parents” with the enticing offer “let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do.” Adulthood often looms unattractively on the horizon in Khalid’s earlier songs, and when he fast-forwarded to “Twenty One,” a song named for his current age about convincing someone to stop drinking too much and to instead “lay with me,” there was the sense that freedom brings, among other things, disappointment.
Khalid is fond of anodyne single-word titles that barely hint at their subjects. Without listening, there’s no way to know that “Hundred” is both the number of days since he was dumped and the number of errands he needs to run to distract him from his heartbreak. There are icebergs of lyrical nuance between the titular tips of “Better” (“arguing with me just isn’t worth it”),“Self” (“always had a little problem with self-reflection”), “Alive” (“lately I’ve been living out of spite”), and, of course, his rep-establishing “Location” (“I don’t want to fall in love off subtweets” is a bit of wisdom some social media addicts twice his age haven’t yet acquired).
The stage layout was simple, with a pink and blue color scheme, and at one point strands of reflective material dangled from above to form a translucent cage within which Khalid performed. A live band was tucked up on ramps on either side and the guitarist very occasionally permitted to stray down for a solo moment. Images of the star himself, either goofing with pals or, at one point, in a starkly silhouetted closeup of his profile, appeared on the upstage screens. Khalid sang his slower material, which Free Spirit offers in generously languorous heapings, perched on a stool center stage, and in quite a lovely fashion too, particularly on “Bluffin’,” his most traditionally soulful number.
Khalid’s backup dancers were casual as well, generally dressed in loose, comfortable clothes. There was often something colorful and juvenile about their style, suggesting a local network affiliate’s advice show for tweens called Wassup? or something where the racially integrated cast sings about the dangers of texting while driving. Though Khalid can move well, he mostly kept it free-form, leaving the choreo to the backup troupe, whose routines fell somewhere between modern dance and throwback ’90s, with little or no sexed up below-the-waist activity.
Sex happens in Khalid’s songs, but offstage. If pop is regularly about how to make it to the bedroom (or some other adequate site), Khalid sings more about regaining your bearings after the hookup. You can hear why teen girls would adore him—he’s committed to hours of discussion about determining the precise word for your “relationship” or whatever this thing you have together might be. (Lord, are those poor sweet kids gonna be disappointed when they have to date real boys.)
As we entered the home stretch, “Young, Dumb & Broke” instigated the second most enthusiastic audience singalong I’ve witnessed in 2019. (No one will top the kids screaming the “Bad Guy” lyrics over Billie Eilish at her June Armory show.) That song is a celebration of all three adjectives it mentions, and also a wily guy’s attempt to negotiate his way out of an exclusive relationship with dodges like “What’s fun about commitment?” and “We’ve still got love to give.”
And, of course, Khalid sang “Talk.” Earlier this year, this was the No. 3 song in America, behind Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” The moment marked an abrupt changing of the pop guard, as Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber languished a few rungs below on the charts like clueless olds who’d lost their bearings. Lacking Nas’ memetic pizzazz or Billie’s ghoulish glee, Khalid appeared the most conventional of this new pop triumvirate. (Though he's far from macho, I sense something all-too-strictly hetero in his delivery and persona that feels quaint if not dated in 2019.) But he’s got his lock on some significant aspects of the generational mood nonetheless.
Khalid closed with “Saturday Nights,” which romantically suggests a world of shared secrets, of “all the things that I know, that your parents don’t,” that he refuses to detail for the listener—either you know what he’s singing about or you don’t. And if “teenpop” means anything in 2019, it’s this: music that’s too mushy to lure in curious younger sibs, that doesn’t feel culturally significant enough to feature prominently on critical radar, that isn’t quite big and glossy for parents to bop along to. So why wouldn’t these kids love the hell out of Khalid? He’s all theirs.
Another Sad Love Song
Outta My Head
Young Dumb & Broke