R&B is one of the most influential genres currently. Not only have some of the biggest artists of the previous few years been skyrocketed to stardom as a result of their ability to play with the genre in such a way as to garner significant attention, but the fact that so many musicians, most recently Stormzy and Future, who work outside of the R&B paradigm are beginning to dip their toes in its smooth and soulful waters is evidence of its far-reaching importance. As a result, however, it also takes a significant supply of individuality and charisma to be heard amongst the ever-growing number of artists releasing music tailored to an R&B audience. It seems that Khalid Robinson, known professionally solely as Khalid, must retain some of these qualities, seeing as his debut single, Location, peaked at number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100, causing an impressive amount of hype surrounding the release of his first full-length album. Said album comes to us in the form of American Teen, and if one thing can be said about it, it’s that Khalid surely retains a deep appreciation for the genre. The Texan crooner exhibits an awareness of both R&B’s present and past, and he most definitely wears his influences on his sleeve. However, whilst Khalid may display enough to distinguish himself from the competition on the surface, on a deeper level, the singer’s debut lacks a thorough amount of substance beyond its aesthetic. This is occasionally as a result of Khalid so clearly evoking his influences as to sound tired at times, but certain tracks also exhibit somewhat of a lack of direction or skillful songwriting as to come across as wanting in many regards. American Teen, therefore, may see Khalid lay down a blueprint for a sound that could ascertain considerable commercial success, but the material on here often comes across as hollow when one gets past the flashy surface.
Admittedly, American Teen gets off to a very promising start with the opening title track. Instrumentally, this song establishes a vibe reminiscent of 80s dance-pop, especially as a result of the booming synthetic drums that bring in the main beat, which could have been pulled straight from a Rick Astley song. The production is rather vibrant, which really complements the pretty synth lines and the smooth bass, and Khalid lays down perhaps his most impressive vocal performances on the entire record, particularly over the chorus, wherein the synth leads that swoop in provide effective counterpoint to the singer’s memorable vocal melodies. Ultimately, this title track is so enjoyable because it sees such an effective realisation of what Khalid seems to have envisaged for this album, and the artist’s various stylistic influences come together in a way that sounds refreshing rather than blatantly rehashed. Unfortunately, after I felt so sure that the opening song had established a distinct sound that Khalid would pursue on the proceeding songs, the vast majority of the remaining 14 tracks on the album suffer from recurring issues, largely as a result of how generic many of them are, which leads to few memorable moments consequently.
Following the buoyant and dynamic title track, Young Dumb & Broke marks a significant change of pace on numerous fronts, and this is a change that continues on much of the remainder of the album. The beat is founded on a rudimentary drum loop with some held organ chords, and the instrumental stays essentially identical in its foundation throughout the entire cut, with some sparse rhythmic embellishments and held bass notes being added over the course of its runtime. Such a simple and arguably forgettable instrumental would require quite the outstanding performance from Khalid in order to salvage this track from being forgotten about the moment it finishes, but alas, the singer does not deliver. To be fair to him, his vocal melodies during both the verse and chorus could be argued to be memorable, but that’s really only because of how familiar and unoriginal they sound. The word generic is a term I often try to avoid using because it’s so commonly used as a means of criticising music that I feel it has lost a lot of its meaning, but it’s really the best word to describe Young Dumb & Broke and, indeed, much of the rest of American Teen. Even the following track and the record’s lead single, Location, resorts to so many pop/R&B clichés that there’s little substance here that distinguishes these songs from the countless amount of other singles being released currently that fall into similar stylistic categories. Even Khalid’s singing here is much more affected and, as a result, he becomes even less discernible from other artists who utilise a similar style of vocal delivery and, if anything, the fact that Khalid seldom ventures outside of his mid-range would rank him below average on a list of such singers. I should also add that, of the bevy of overused techniques that are worked into the cut here, the up-pitched vocals not only add nothing to the song, but are really quite irritating and seem to only fulfil the role of conveying this track as a radio-friendly single. Ultimately, the vast majority of the rest of American Teen suffers from incredibly similar ills, which are often exacerbated by Khalid’s unambitious vocal performances and trite, forgettable lyrics. What also doesn’t help is the length of this album — clocking in at 54 minutes and spread across 15 tracks — with many cuts covering such similar ground that a significant portion of this record feels completely inconsequential to the development of the record. After such a remarkable and generally promising start, I was left incredibly disappointed that the rest of American Teen was so safe and uninventive.
Whilst American Teen is by no means a complete failure, it does highlight many shortcomings that are likely to hinder Khalid’s significance amongst the current alternative R&B scene. Going into the future, the title track exhibits what could be a very successful blueprint for the artist. Should Khalid pursue a sound as recognisable and enjoyable as this, I honestly think that future material could amount to something much more intriguing amidst the large amount of music of this vein that is being released nowadays. Unfortunately, the majority of this album is so commonplace in the contemporary R&B scene that I feel like going into detail about any more of these tracks would lead to me simply repeating myself. For the most part, the songs on here are by no means bad, and a fair few incorporate a good idea here or there, but they are all of such a similar complexion that American Teen feels like a rather tired release. Nevertheless, Khalid has displayed his competence as a songwriter and singer on this record’s better moments, so I hope that he works on honing a more distinctive musical identity on future releases.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10