Khalid at Radio City: A Pop Star in a Tracksuit

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Khalid performs onstage at Radio City Music Hall on Jan. 27, 2018 in New York City. 

"My first show in New York City was at SOB's -- there were 300 people there," Khalid reflected at New York's Radio City Music Hall last night (Jan. 27), a couple songs through his headlining set  "That was in January. And now, a year later..." 

Of pop music's major success stories of the past year, few feel quite as gratifying as Khalid's. As implied by the singer-songwriter, his rise has really been quite extraordinary: This time in 2017, he was an unknown quanity with just one bubbling-under, seemingly left-field R&B single slowly climbing the charts. And 12 months later, he's already scored hits alongside such far-flung artists as Marshmello, Logic and Imagine Dragons, and will be attending the Grammys tonight as both a performer (on Logic's "1-800-273-8255") one of the year's most-nominated artists -- with five nods, including best new artist.

It's been a refreshing breakthrough, because despite Khalid's youth -- he only graduated high school in 2016, and appropriately for an artist who titled his debut album American Teen, won't celebrate his 20th birthday until this February -- he was, upon arrival, already one of the strongest voices in mainstream music. That's true both in the literal sense -- his simultaneously delicate and mighty croon has rare character and versatility -- and the figurative one, as his sharp lyrics and veteran songcraft lent his songs a distinctive enough perspective that even older critics had to grumble their approval for the preternaturally talented Millennial. 

From the shrieks that greeted Khalid at Radio City -- hell, that greeted the curtain dropping 15 minutes before Khalid's actual entrance, even -- it was clear that such writers are not Khalid's primary source of acclaim. Indeed, if it wasn't obvious from the top 40 jams the pre-show DJ was piping in to pump up the crowd immediately before the reveal -- a smattering of Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez -- by the time of the set-opening American Teen title track, Khalid's rapturous, high-pitched response confirmed that he was now no longer an R&B star, or an alt-pop star, or anything else but a full-bore pop star, making young New Yorkers' dreams come true for one Saturday night. 

Which isn't to say that he necessarily looks or acts the part, at least in the traditional sense. At last summer's MTV Video Music Awards, Khalid showed up for the largest public appearance of his life in a half-tucked flannel and cargo pants, a look that was neither obviously hip or openly rebellious, but somehow ended up being perhaps the night's biggest fashion statement. Last night, he hit the stage in a tracksuit (this one from Blackeyepatch), which is becoming something of a signature cool-not-cool look for the singer-songwriter: "Comfort first," he explained to GQ in November. "Once you’re comfortable with the way that you’re dressing, you express yourself a lot more and you’re just able to have a lot more fun."

It works for Khalid, certainly, who isn't quite the conventional pop triple-threat on stage, but has a unique energy and physicality (to go with a 5000-watt smile) that's a low-key blend of The Weeknd, Kid 'n Play and Garth Brooks. He captivated the crowd bounding across the stage all night -- minus a short mid-set acoustic detour, for which he was given a stool and a brief respite -- punctuating the highest-energy moments with sequences of punches, twirls and high kicks. He brought on a couple dancers dressed at cheerleaders for backup, but he seemed just as comfortable mixing in with their routines as he did playing the jock they were rooting on. 

Of course, fashion and stage presence only mean so much for a performer like Khalid -- ultimately, it's about the songs, and Saturday's set shows that he already has near a greatest hits set's worth of those. One of the signs of a true pop great is being unable to immediately discern their singles from their deep cuts, and that was undoubtedly true of the 15 American Dream tracks -- all of which got played -- both in terms of the songs' quality, and in the audience's enthusiasm for them. 

Khalid's greatest skill as a songwriter may be in writing choruses that seem to start in the verse and go on forever, overwhelming without exhausting, and usually leaving you with a non-verbal "da-da" or "na-na" hook to linger far after they're done. And while his voice is tremendous, it's also impressively flexible, equally able to take on the lush John Hughes-via-The-1975 alt-romance of "Keep Me" and the Sampha-like, trembling gospel'n'B of "Angels" (referred to by Khalid as his favorite song on American Teen). Khalid probably doesn't plan on spending the next 15 months working additional American Teen singles, but there's at least another four or five he could pull from it without straining credibility. 

Not that he even needs to promote his own hits to keep his voice omnipresent on radio: He's already an in-demand featured vocalist, and he augmented his Radio City set with appearances from Calvin Harris collab "Rollin" and currently top 40 hit with his "good friend Marshemllo," "Silence." No Logic, however, likely saving that one for Sunday -- the anticipation of which hung over the concert, making it feel like the afternoon before prom night. "Tomorrow, I'm nominated for five Grammys," he announced to thunderous applause, going on to thank the fans for making it possible -- not downplaying the momentousness (and unlikeliness) of the occasion, but not seeming overly impressed with himself either. 

After a brief intermission, too brief to even really call what ensued an encore, Khalid closed the set with his current signature song, "Young Dumb & Broke." While the crowd sang along to every word -- they knew knowledgeable enough all night for the performer to just stick out the mic whenever he wanted to take a lyric off -- the song didn't feel particularly closer-ish, and almost before you knew it, Khalid had exited stage left and the Radio City house lights were on. It wasn't an unsatisfying ending, exactly, but it did imply a pretty clear message for his fans: Don't get too wrapped up in tonight's triumph, because bigger things are on their way. 

Setlist:

American Teen
Let's Go
Another Sad Love Song
8TEEN
Saved
Hopeless
Therapy
Cold Blooded
Shot Down
Coasted
Angels
Keep Me
Winter
Silence
Location
Rollin
Young Dumb & Broke