These days, Khalid doesn’t get to see much of El Paso when he visits. Maybe he catches a glimpse of the mountains from the window of a car, but the twenty-year-old breakout pop star can’t do most of the normal teenage things he sang about on his 2017 debut album, American Teen. He may still be young and dumb—but he’s not so broke, and undeniably famous. So when he goes back to the city he adopted as his own after his mom was stationed at Fort Bliss, he doesn’t get to go out—he’s too big of a hometown hero for that. He can’t go out to eat with his friends without being stopped by fans. “My hair might be the biggest crime in this situation,” he told Texas Monthly in March.
But the experience of finding a home—especially for an Army brat who finally fell in with a special group of friends during that all-important senior year of high school—clearly stuck with Khalid. Although there’s still not a release date for his sophomore album, on Friday he released his first official follow-up—the seven-track Suncity EP yet, a love letter to the 915 he fell in love with as a teenager.
Suncity opens with a brief intro track called “9.13,” a reference to the date earlier this year, when Mayor Dee Margo presented him with the key to the city. From there, the EP unspools a series of atmospheric tracks that use Khalid’s voice in a variety of ways. Over acoustic guitars and drum machines on “Saturday Nights,” he sings about the strains of hopelessness that can accompany a certain kind of post-high school life of working dead-end jobs and living with your parents. He finds an ethereal register on “Vertigo,” building a lovely sonic setting that’s more interested in creating a mood than giving listeners another “Location” to sing along to in the car on the way back from the mall. On “Motion,” he bridges the gap between R&B and indie rock to deliver something that sounds like an updated take on what the XX did on their early records, using a heavily autotuned outro to create an emotional distance between the words he sings and the listener. On the final track, “Suncity,” he brings back the acoustic guitar to deliver a radio-friendly bilingual bop where he croons straight to El Paso: “Llévame a ciudad de sol / lévame, llévame / donde deje mi corazón,” he sings.
There were signs that this might be the direction Khalid’s music was heading over the past year. The tracks he’s played a featured role on since American Teen have run the gamut stylistically. He’s cut tracks with superstar rappers like Rick Ross and Kendrick Lamar, which showcase his impressive range, and he’s also explored the minor-key atmospheric side he plays in on Suncity with ballads and duets with artists like Billie Eilish and Martin Garrix. And all of this still feels, ultimately, like a stepping stone to something greater.
Suncity sounds great, but it’s not the follow-up album to American Teen, and Khalid is still only twenty—he’s very much an artist who is still finding his voice. He’s got smart enough commercial instincts to know that, in addition to setting moods, his career will be in a better place if he offers at least one pop hit like “Suncity” on each release, but where he ultimately ends up is still a question. Khalid is a major talent, inviting us along as he figures out where his voice is—but wherever that may be, it’s clear that his heart is still absolutely in El Paso.