As time passes, so do new artistic fixations emerge, and for the past several years pop musicians have been grappling with how best to represent millennial anxiety. Khalid’s debut album, American Teen, suggests a way: 15 lithe, electronic R&B burners, immersed in warm synthesizer splash and quavery vulnerability.
I’m reluctant to project generational matters onto individual artists, as such generalizations inevitably won’t fit, but Khalid’s thematic fixations invite hyperbole. In its unassuming sweetness, its unease over separation and closeness (and its embrace of technology as producer of both), its light touch and aching sincerity, American Teen is the quintessential Millennial Romance album. I bet current undergraduates will treasure it for years.
I’ve been listening to American Teen with increasing fascination since its release in March. It inhabits its own winningly intimate, hushed, balmy aural space, and it corrects several tendencies that befall artists who address similar subject matter.
The convention when depicting the current generation’s love life is to bemoan the prevalence of hookup culture, social media, and all the concomitant ills that, according to those who think about these very serious issues, ostensibly follow: narcissism, commitmentphobia, phone addiction, inability to emulate the previous generation’s correct behavior, etc.
Mitski’s sharp, miserable Puberty 2 pulls it off because the specifics of analysis disappear beneath her guitar feedback in an expertly dramatized outburst of deprivation and rage. The Chainsmokers can’t, and the crassness of their Memories… Do Not Open represents a nadir. The image of the tortured millennial who hates parties and hookups yet partakes because everyone else does, the old soul, surrounded by shallowness, secretly craving something real — this amounts to a moralistic, hypocritical condemnation of hedonism, a youth-specific version of what Drake and the Weeknd have made careers of.
Khalid, a 19-year-old vocal prodigy, looks at the same world and doesn’t see hedonism; it’s just life. Adults adjusting to new media may well exaggerate the chaos they experience and/or blame it on the culture, but by now enough adolescents have grown up flirting by text to address such things in art with relaxed acceptance rather than panic.
Khalid’s songs occupy a quasi-narrative world where modern signifiers are incorporated into familiar situations, as in “I’ll keep your number saved cause I hope one day you’ll get the sense to call me,” or “Send me your location/let’s focus on communication/cause I just need the time and place to come through,” with the idiomatic “come through” as striking as the phone reference.
American Teen also tweaks musical paradigms in its blend of airy and concrete. Quibbling over genre definitions is a dead end, but it puzzles me when critics class Frank Ocean and Sampha as R&B, let alone treat them as an elevation of R&B (from what to what, exactly?); it’s clear that quiet, watered-down, genreless treacle is what they’re aiming for.
Superficially, American Teen sounds similar in its cautious tempos and textural thinness, but the songs are pithy, hooky, and melodically simple, and as such the cascading electrobeats and soft-edged keyboards radiate warmth, a pale glow. On “Hopeless,” a smooth electronic gloss coats the jerky, up-and-down pairing of the buzzy metallic keyboard with the punchy bounce of the drum machine to replace its nervous energy with a placating sense of calm. The utterly gorgeous “Keep Me” sways over sunny rhythm guitar, assorted breathy backup moans, and a drum track that clicks and snaps in response to the melody, a fragile thing.
This is delicate music, yet in its small gestures it assumes a sweeping feel, richly immersive, thus offering a physicality that’s surprising given Khalid’s sonic palette. The album might indeed have benefited from louder and faster beats, but its sudden moments of intensity carry immense weight, such as the bursts of inarticulate yeah-yeah-yeahs after the chorus on “Young Dumb & Broke,” or when “Another Sad Love Song” swells up into an epically distraught chorus after the restrained verse.
Vocally, Khalid is quiet yet captivating, and there’s a catch in the back of his throat that throbs and smolders; he can at once project and swallow consonants, as on “Let’s Go,” where his weird stress patterns produce unexpected rhymes. His voice is both soul-singer and confessional-singer-songwriter, which has thematic implications too: unrequited love as the intersection of multiple genre conventions.
Thematically, unrequited love suits melancholy better than anxiety over hookup culture, which can be opted out of more easily. In songs about yearning and loss, youthful confusion and feeling adrift (the latter two being key to the album’s mood), Khalid inhabits the eternal Ache — that simulated intensity of feeling that singers of sad love songs know too well — with sweetly lyrical vulnerability, disarming in how he twinges the heartstrings.
While he’s less juvenile, less mechanical, more conventionally expressive, and more overtly sexual, Khalid reminds me of PC Music, or perhaps Skrillex in his more sensitive moments in his insistence that alienated, technology-damaged adolescents are as worthy and capable of love as anybody else, or as he himself puts it: “Yeah we’re just young dumb and broke/but we still got love to give.”
Often he harmonizes with high, garbled vocoded versions of himself, squeaky backup singers that comment on his main vocal line, playing like interjections from a repressed id, On “Let’s Go,” he sings the wordy verses confidently before repeating the title phrase in the chorus, while the chipmunk in back goes crazy. “Saved” is even more exquisite: over steadily flickering rhythm guitar chords and echoey keyboard overlays, he sadly, hopefully imagines the day when he calls an ex to confess his feelings. By the end of the song the message has changed, but he’s not the one who delivers it, and during the final chorus, the chipmunk’s voice drowns out his own: “To tell you that I’m finally over you,” with echo: “Finally over you, finally over you…” He never chimes back in; the song fades out. It’s a little creepy — simulations of vulnerability are creepy. It captures an emotional structure exactly.
If American Teen reveals anything about the current generation’s mores, it’s that adrift adolescent confusion is forever available to be limned in song. Technology, as lyrical fixation and musical substance, exists as a distancing device, but the focus is on his burning heart. Warming to him may take time, but let him serenade you. His gift lies in dissecting and chewing on the concept of intimacy.
American Teen (2017) is available via Amazon other online retailers.