An “American Teen” Living the Dream

A soundtrack of fun, angsty, youthful soundscapes

A few birds are chirping. An alarm is going off in the distance. A sweet, slow electronic melody and an upbeat synth reminiscent of all the greatest ’80s songs you’ve ever heard carries in a smooth-yet-raspy, soulful voice. Living the good life full of goodbyes, Khalid Robinson, whose stage name is simply “Khalid,” sings, My eyes are on the grey skies / Saying I don’t want to come home tonight. With this first track, Khalid, only 18 years old, introduces to his listeners a teenage desert utopia—a world that is both fully captured and capturing in the singer’s debut album, American Teen.

The pre-chorus to this track, “American Teen,” from which the album gets its name, builds up to an infectious anthem of a chorus—a couple of lines that will easily be chanted in high school and college parties alike all across the nation. So wake me up in the spring, Khalid croons, While I’m high off my American Dream.

If Khalid’s “American Dream” is to have his very first album hold the no. 9 spot on on the Billboard Top 200 Albums, then he is indeed soaring high. The teenager, who calls El Paso, Texas his home, has since the release of the album been given shoutouts from dozens of Hollywood A-listers, ranging from Kendall Jenner to Ella Yellich-O’Connor (you most likely know her as Lorde) to Hoodie Allen.

Khalid began his career in a quintessentially millennial and DIY way—by recording songs on his iPhone, writing his lyrics in a Notes app, and uploading the finished recording on Soundcloud. Tuni Balogun, vice president of A&R at RCA Records, told USA Today that these Soundcloud uploads “caught his ear.” So, during his senior year, Khalid traveled to Atlanta to record his hit single, “Location.” The track garnered popularity for about a year before the release of American Teen. “Location” was featured on one of Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat stories, sending the single’s popularity through the roof.

Khalid, a self-prescribed military brat, began his passion for music at a young age. His mother, who is in the Army, dreamt of becoming a musician. A household full of music and a fateful assignment at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Khalid says, combined perfectly to make him the artist he is today. The singer claims to have leaned into his loneliness to produce the songs on American Teen.

Khalid’s sound is definitely unique, though some music critics categorize him under “Contemporary” or “Alternative” R&B. The self-made singer/songwriter/producer certainly has an R&B base—think Frank Ocean or Chance the Rapper. But he also has some sticky-pop vibes and fun synth energies and reverbs that, coupled with choruses and hooks, sound more like a Lorde or Carly Rae Jepsen production.

The Lorde comparison in particular makes sense. Khalid and the New Zealand singer, who recently released two brilliant singles off her upcoming sophomore album, share a producer, Joel Little. Joel Little perhaps has a knack for finding teenage prodigies; Khalid’s album and Lorde’s debut project, Pure Heroine, are more similar than one would initially think. Khalid sings about being “Young Dumb & Broke” much like Lorde sang about her and her friends never becoming “Royals.” The two write about the loneliness of growing up—“A World Alone” wraps up Lorde’s album, while Khalid croons in the track “Winter” about life in my lonely city of El Paso.

The two works truly capture teenagedom with an acute sense of genuineness that can only stem from the fact that the two artists wrote and recorded their respective albums as teenagers. Khalid chants in “American Teen”: My youth is the foundation of me. Although, on second thought, perhaps thinking their age is the biggest contributor to their success is a disservice to both artists. Their work is of course inherently influenced by their lived experiences; but, it is also so mature and, well, good, that their success must also be a direct result of each artist’s raw talent and keen insight into the worlds that surround them. Thus, this album isn’t just for teenagers—it’s for anyone who remembers being young, dumb, and broke, or who has experienced naïve love, or who simply wants to reminisce about youth, adolescence, recklessness, or the kind of irresponsibility teenagedom can foster.

Just as Lorde introduced us to the suburbs of New Zealand, Khalid brings us to the desert city of El Paso, where the singer claims he truly became an artist. He gives “the 915” a shout out every chance he has, writing about the desert skies, the Texas highways, and, of course, about the El Paso girls, who are all pretty and down for the hype.

American Teen leaves no teenage-themed stone unturned. Khalid writes of sneakily getting high off marijuana and trying to keep it a secret from his mother, of driving around town with the top down singing songs aloud, of wanting to just get the hell out of here, of love, of heartbreak, of fearing commitment, of relationships. And though these themes may sound generic, Khalid’s songwriting, like Lorde’s, is so full of tiny details and beautiful imagery that you’ll feel like you are hearing about heartbreak or wanting to “get the hell out” for the first time. If you are like me, only a few years removed from high school, you’ll almost want to go back and listen to this record in some old parking lot with your friends, while you do all the stupid shit that young kids do.

I can’t recommend this artist, and album, highly enough. The record has some danceable bangers filled with lines that will be stuck in your head for weeks—look out for “American Teen,” “8TEEN,” and “Another Sad Love Song.” It has fun songs to chill out to, like “Location” and “Winter.” And it has tunes that will likely make you cry with their emotional depth, like “Saved,” or “Angels.”

The album wraps up with another alarm sound going off, indicating Khalid’s awakening from his “American Dream.” If the album is a dream—a dreamy sound symphony full of smooth R&B tunes, sick pop beats, and catchy anthem-like choruses—then I suggest you go to sleep very soon.