Music by VICE

Khalid Could Be the Next GOAT

The 19-year-old singer will soundtrack this summer and could become a generational talent. All that potential is terrifying.

by Alex Robert Ross
May 12 2017, 3:05pm

Khalid Robinson is a kid looking out at a world of infinite opportunity. In March, he released one of 2017's finest records in American Teen, an album that builds around a vivid dream sequence, deftly weaving soft R&B, melancholy pop inflections, and insistent, glowing melodies. It's essential: the production is minimal and utterly uncluttered; Khalid's voice is magnified by its understatement. When Calvin Harris announced a new album this week, featuring almost every huge pop musician in America, it was Khalid voice that played as the names flashed up. The full track, a collaboration with Future that sounds how the sun feels, dropped this morning. "I don't know what's coming up next, but I just know that it's going to be something I would've never imagined myself doing a year ago," Khalid told his student paper at high school before any of this blew up. Turns out, this 19-year-old military kid from El Paso is going to soundtrack the summer.

If that seemed unlikely at the start of the year, it makes perfect sense now. For a start, American Teen is an album of its time: relationships are made and broken online, wires are crossed. On the title track, his friend passes out in an Uber; on "Location,"—a song that took off after being played on Kendall Jenner's Snapchat—he sings, "I don't want to fall in love off of subtweets," before asking for a dropped pin and something more tangible: "Let's focus on communicating." And when he does find that focus, he gets caught in his moment. That title track opens in the present: an alarm clock beeping, a statement of joy despite inevitable breakdowns. He's "Living the good life full of goodbyes," "From the city of the 9-1-5 / Where all the girls are pretty and they're down for the hype." He asks what he's high off and answers himself by saying he's, well, high off his "American dream." On "Young, Dumb, and Broke," he finds a crackle at the back of his throat in the verse, singing with a sultry ease: "I'm so high at the moment / I'm so caught up in this / Yeah, we're just young, dumb, and broke / But we still got love to give."

There's a teenage invincibility to it that runs through all great pop from Chuck Berry's automatic reverie to Elvis Presley's young love to the Beach Boys' summer sweetness to Madonna's hedonism, right through to Lil Yachty's "look around bro, look at life" philosophy and Japandroids' overwhelmed and overwhelming whiskey-shooting. It's a heady present, a rush of adrenaline and hormones. Richard Linklater caught it in the desert in Boyhood's final scene with two tripping freshmen saying that "the moment seizes us." Khalid gets it before he's even hit American Teen's first chorus: "who cares, who cares / 'Cause this is our year."

But American Teen brilliantly captures the moment before the rush, too. "8Teen," a complete rejection of sonic maximalism, has him pretty much demanding, "Let's do all the stupid shit that young kids do". The dizzy 90s disco of "Let's Go" calmly tells you to "Leave your sorrow on the table / Pick up your worries and throw them out the window" before the beat cuts and Khalid can call the title out through the mix. And when he's caught up in all this pre-ecstasy, he can project forwards and anticipate the buzz. When a relationship threatens to die out in "Winter," Khalid asks for a "promise that you'll keep my love with you" when things get cold; on the stark "Therapy," he does get the high, "tripping off your love and all the other drugs we taking," though he's still needing for some emotional reassurance from the other side. Because he's "not one for relationships," he gets to answer his own question: "What should we do? / Whatever you want to." On "Young, Dumb, and Broke," the question is completely rhetorical: "What's fun about commitment / When we've got our lives to live?"

That euphoria feels essential with the days getting warmer and everything inching closer to an absurd apocalypse—it's not so much escapism as it is a beautiful last sanctuary. From meaningless NBA games to the Washington Post's new slogan, everything's seems geared to the End of Things. Already this year, Gorillaz's new record, Humanz, has been billed as a dance party for the end of the world. A new Jose Cuervo commercial on TV shows the apocalypse in full swing, drinkers turning to the jukebox as the skies turn red and the roof's ripped off—the tag line is Tomorrow is Overrated; the soundtrack is Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never."

Eventually, all potential—all possibility—is terrifying to some degree. "Figure this is a nice young man with a big future, and hope with all your heart that the latter doesn't swallow up the former before we know it," Robert Christgau wrote of Khalid. We're not accustomed to thinking long—not with the world on edge, not in an age of bright-burning, quick-fading stars, and not when a career gets its launch from a Jenner's Snapchat. But American Teen forces us to consider that Khalid might be a generational talent.

Potential not only opens up the possibility that things could go wrong, that everything might be stacked against us—it forces us to look into a future in which we're older, changed, probably less innocent, more inured to that perfect euphoria. Simple as it sounds, those highs are fleeting. At least in real life. Khalid's gift so far has been capturing those moments before they hit and before they fade.

Alex Robert Ross is dumb and broke, at least. Follow him on Twitter.