Khalid grins broadly at the roiling sea of phones arrayed below him. “Day two at the O2!” exclaims the 21-year-old pop crooner with a bewildered shake of the head.
Clad in a cosy argyle jumper, chinos and Converse, he has just finished delivering a pair of songs, 8Teen and Twenty One, that mark the distance the singer has travelled in 24 months. At 18, Khalid was still living with his parents. “Yours are more understanding,” he notes ruefully (his mother is an army sergeant) on what is still one of his most affecting songs. By Twenty One, from Khalid’s latest album Free Spirit, he’s singing about pain, anxiety and the understanding that drinking legally in the US doesn’t solve anything.
Even in an era increasingly given to out-of-nowhere successes, Khalid Donnel Robinson’s rise from El Paso teenager to international stadium-filler has been like greased lightning – to borrow a phrase from a distant teenaged past. In the spring of 2016, Khalid uploaded a yearning love song, Location, on to Soundcloud – partly in an attempt to shore up his social status before his prom. It was an instant classic of telecommunications-themed romance, in the vein of every love song previously featuring a telephone. Only now, it was about dropping a pin on to a virtual map. “Send me your location,” it went, Khalid’s caramelised ache cracking in just the right places. By the time Khalid graduated from high school a couple of months later, Kylie Jenner had tweeted the track. The video for Location included a guide to how to pronounce the noob’s name: Kuh-leed.
There was, briefly, some confusion between this tall-haired, pointy-bearded, Arabic-named lover boy – whose debut, American Teen, radically rewrote the mainstream in 2017 – and DJ Khaled. That is no longer a problem. In April, Khalid became the single most-streamed artist globally on Spotify – bigger, according to the site’s metrics, than Ariana Grande. Around the same time, a Khalid song held every single one of the top five spots on Billboard’s all-important R&B chart, not to mention eight of the top 10, and 16 of the top 25. It was an extraordinary statistic, not least because Khalid is, at the very least, an untraditional R&B singer. Tonight, you half expect him to update Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, such is the pastel Springsteen vibe of many of his songs. Although sex does figure in his songs, Khalid is, in many ways, the anti-Weeknd: polite, partial to just a little weed, respectful of women, deep in his feelings, a purveyor of emo R&B. “Can we just talk?” he pleads convincingly on Talk, one of the highlights of Free Spirit.
On his second night in this arena, the very top tier of seats may be cordoned off, but the sense of Khalid being a singer very much for our times remains palpable. The previous night fans enjoyed an appearance by Ed Sheeran and their run-through of Beautiful People, a song about being an everyman by two everymen that went to No 1 in the UK earlier this year.
Tonight there’s no Ed, but perhaps an even more WTF moment: west London grime MC AJ Tracey bounds around performing his excellent track Ladbroke Grove. As yet, Khalid and Tracey have not collaborated; hopefully they will. Khalid’s extraordinary streaming stats are due to back-scratching hookups with umpteen fellow artists of the moment, but he is spread terribly thin and could use some more credibility. Some of the night’s cheers are loudest for Silence, Khalid’s OK tune with EDM producer Marshmello, and two more collaborations: Eastside, an affecting Benny Blanco song also originally featuring Halsey, and the moodier Love Lies, Khalid’s hookup with Normani. (One recent collaboration that he doesn’t play tonight is genius, though: Right Back, Khalid’s recent tune with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie.)
You can’t help but feel Khalid’s talents are being squandered, although his bank balance would probably argue otherwise. He has one of those voices that genuinely could elevate the telephone directory to an Ivor Novello. Tonight his coterie of dancers seem to be his best friends, perhaps the result of so much time on the road; he spends all of AJ Tracey’s appearance lolloping deliriously along with them. But perhaps the most bewildering aspect to this gig is how many of Khalid’s songs are deeply felt disquisitions on regret and longing, just delivered as lightweight wallpaper music. Somewhere in the last two years, it feels like real Khalid got lost.
Tonight, the songs from American Teen still sound as immediate and borderline radical as they did in 2017. Young R&B singers do not, traditionally, call their albums things like “American Teen” – that kind of wholesome mainstream trope has most often been left to people like Taylor Swift, or chroniclers of the more contemporary teen experience like Lorde, with whom Khalid toured early on.
American Teen was an album of earworm pop songs inevitably inflected by hip-hop and R&B, but not beholden to them; its production was both quirky and designed to let Khalid’s vocal take centre stage. A song like Saved still nails the angst of keeping someone’s number on your phone after you have parted, just in case. Much later in the set list, Young Dumb and Broke remains an anthem for being on the cusp of agency, but not quite having the wherewithal to fulfil your dreams. American Teen’s genreless-ness was genuinely radical, and that Khalid is still in there, you can only hope.
Free Spirit attempted to continue in the same vein with less success. Styled like a Marlboro ad for the Instagram generation, all wide open vistas and glowing highways, the album went to No 1 in the US despite being filled with crowded productions by tick-box names: only Disclosure really emerge as heroes (they did Talk). Lacking the charm of its predecessor, Free Spirit makes Khalid’s imperviousness to genre a drag: not a progressive new reality, but a mush-fest, where everything meaningful and distinct we associate with style collapses into a black hole of trap beats and 80s synths and Auto-Tuned backing vocals. The several heartfelt songs Khalid spends on a stool in the third quarter of this long night could be genuinely arresting, if they were stripped of the filtered synth-washes and boring piano accompaniments. The remedy here is more radicalism, not less.