Boxy-haired and dwarfed by a cavernous set up, soul star Khalid bounded on stage to screams that rivaled those more usually inspired by his teenybopper counterparts. His debut, American Teen, appeared last year just before the one-time army brat left the teenage years he so artfully rendered in that album’s poppy, Eighties-inspired R’n’B.
However, until he came fourth in the BBC’s 2018 Sound Of poll, in which critics and insiders tip the acts they think will have success in the following year, it wasn’t a release that you were that likely to encounter unless you were in the grip of adolescence yourself.
His songs unpick what it is to grow, love, win and lose in an age when technology makes forming relationships both easier and harder, so it was apt when his big break came not from radio airplay or relentless touring but when reality star and Kardashian sister Kylie Jenner, used his GPS-inspired hookup jam Location in a Snapchat post.
In fact, Khalid’s staging at the Hammersmith Apollo seemed to have been designed with apps such as Snapchat in mind, and phone cameras were out in force on Wednesday evening as the young crowd documented the befores, durings and afters of the languorous show. Huge projections of Instagram filter-friendly imagery formed the backdrop, all seemingly the result of a brainstorm on the words American and Teen: stars and stripes, vast highways and two half-hearted cheerleaders all made an appearance.
Khalid did his best to fill the stage in front of them, goofing from one end to the other, his moves mostly limited to pointing at the audience and grinning. It wasn’t a performance that made the long stretch of samey, album-track ballads particularly compelling. Khalid’s poppy brand of R’n’B comes with booming stadium drums (played live and loud) that tended here to obscure his often tender, frequently flat vocals – when every song includes an exuberant drum fill as a way of heightening the emotion, it really loses its effect.
It didn’t take long for the adoring crowd to take over vocal duties, singing every syllable from the very first of show opener American Teen, yelling to the skies about being proud to be young and American from the wilds of W6. It’s only fair to report that the audience of dedicated fans loved the gig, but Khalid should steer clear of complacency – his fans may not stand for such lacklustre live shows when the sheen of youth and newness has worn off his songs.
For now, they do the work for him: singing, hugging and doing all the stupid stuff that young kids do.