R&B's newest superstar remains unfinished both on stage and on record, but a Valentine's crowd is certainly not bothered.
374 days ago, the idea of Khalid filling out Hammersmith’s prestigious Eventim Apollo – let alone doing so twice with ease at rather lofty prices – would have seemed more than a little far fetched. He was making his London debut seven physical miles and a million conceptual ones away at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a venue typically reserved for the newest of newcomers and perhaps best known at the time for over-the-bar barbecue courtesy of Michigan techno oddball Seth Troxler. Courtesy of still being a week away, debut album American Teen hadn’t yet accrued any of its multiple billion streams. In fact, when The Edge took a punt on him to feature as one of our picks for 2017 the month before, it was only after a haphazard combination of play counts that we arrived at a figure of 30 million streams for ‘Location’ to make our selection seem that little bit more statistically sound. Here, it would be remiss of us not to attempt something similar: per Wikipedia, the Khalid of today has 46 platinum certifications around the globe.
Given this hectic schedule, it’s unsurprising that his live show hasn’t quite had the chance to receive real polish. Opener ‘American Teen’ packs the whole shebang into around five minutes, featuring an ostentatious key change, a backdrop digitally spangled by questionable typography and distressed stars and stripes, a pair of token cheerleaders popping by to serve ultimately as a token contribution to the high school aesthetic that contextualises the records, and, of course, Khalid himself, singing about half the words and simply beaming through the rest. He traverses the stage with a sort of ungainly charisma not unlike a hybrid of an untrained boyband and an overexuberant but well-intentioned uncle in a cardigan. His spoken interjections flow uneasily, giving a clear impression that an unfamiliar script is behind his mentions of Valentine’s Day (into ‘Another Sad Love Song’: “We can be single together in this motherfucker”) and the London recording session of ‘Winter,’ a yearning ode to his adopted hometown of El Paso, Texas gilded with a cheesy spin into the chorus.
However, it feels unfair to be overly cynical. Songs like the latter were easily the most promising parts of the set, trading overblown melodrama in the accompaniment and the aforementioned cheerleaders (who changed costume and lost the pompoms to look increasingly dishevelled and asymmetric as the set progressed) for more a more heartfelt feel. Despite reserving everything your casual radio listener may have come across (‘Location,’ ‘Young Dumb & Broke,’ and his collaborations with Marshmello and Calvin Harriss) to close, attention barely wavered in the crowd as lyrics were almost remarkably ingrained throughout, turning even the most mundane filler into mass singalongs.
Discounting ‘Silence,’ which exhibits the most drearily predictable tendencies of his songwriting when it’s not too busy being a high-octane blur of erratic hopping and shouted countdowns taking precedence over vocal substance, a Khalid show today just does its job. Even if rarely either spectacular spectacular or exhilarating, his delivery was clear and almost entirely precise, and the three-piece ensemble that soundtracked the night worked with similar diligence, embellishing the album material with stimulating pomp. It’s hard to think of any new male talent quite getting the hang of what it takes to fit a traditional R&B superstar mould, but with a little more time and a little more practice, Khalid might be our best hope.