THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE El Paso teenager’s debut establishes him as one of R&B’s up-and-coming stars.
This time last year, Khalid Robinson was a high school senior in El Paso, Texas, an Army brat just starting to write songs. Today, his major-label debut, “American Teen” (RCA), arrives in stores.
The 19-year-old’s shockingly fast ascent is due to his stark, yet soulful single “Location,” which came out of nowhere last year to win over celebrity fans such as Kylie Jenner, who loved it so much she started lip-syncing it on her Snapchat. Like much of Khalid’s music, “Location” is simple and straightforward, allowing repetition and his warm, soulful voice to make his points about growing up in America right now.
“We don’t always say what we mean — it’s the life of an American teen,” he sings in the title track. “My youth is the foundation of me living life as an American teen.”
It may not sound deep, but it feels right. And that’s part of Khalid’s charm. He’s a teenager who sounds like a teenager. He’s the male R&B version of pop’s Alessia Cara or, more optimistically, country’s Taylor Swift back in the day.
For that reason, the lighter songs on “American Teen” fare best. “Saved” is a catchy tale about keeping a girl’s number in his cellphone on the off chance that she calls him back. “Coaster” compares a breakup to a roller-coaster ride, with Khalid tapping into the effortless soul of Frank Ocean’s earliest work.
Though he’s still learning how to write songs, Khalid has been around music all his life. He’s a classically trained vocalist and his mother sings in the U.S. Army Band, the reason he has lived everywhere from Germany to upstate Watertown.
And that may be why songs like “Let’s Go” work so well, even though they are definitely informal. Khalid is a natural and it shows all through “American Teen.”