“Suncity” features pop singer Khalid trying new styles like Latin pop and pitch-shifted vocal samples. Although there are moments of surprising emotional potency, Khalid ultimately lacks artistic maturity and makes only cursory efforts at experimentation.
At 20 years old, Khalid Donnel Robinson, known simply as Khalid, has become an international pop-star, largely because of the success of his 2017 debut album, “American Teen.” In the wake of young pop artists like suburban heroine Lorde, Khalid solidified his position as a pre-eminent voice among the wave of millennial trap-pop, crafting tales of love, loss and youth in his beloved El Paso, Texas.
Yet, after a year of riding the coattails of songs like “Location” and “American Teen” and noteworthy features on tracks like “Love Lies,” Khalid has reached a point in his career when he will need to display maturity beyond the narrow thematic lenses of his past work. “Suncity” is Khalid’s opportunity to expand his creative horizons — which he does — while still reminding fans of why they liked him in the first place.
“9.13” opens the album with luscious vocal harmonies, which serve as the backdrop to a vocal recording of Khalid being awarded the key to El Paso. Khalid continues exploring this change in perspective in “Vertigo.” Swirling strings clear the way for a powerful vocal performance, filled with echoes and hums.
Describing the tumultuous path of the first year of his career, Khalid sings, “Are we alive, or are we dreaming / After the ride, are you living?” The track is as much a call to society as it is a moment of personal reflection. The bridge is a highlight of the entire project, slowly pulling the listener closer and closer with Khalid’s monotone chant, culminating in an explosion of harmony and a fourth chorus.
However, the momentum of the album slows on the third track. Unfortunately, “Saturday Nights” is just as cliche as the name suggests. Khalid’s injection of the acoustic guitar is reminiscent of Ed Sheeran’s style and lacks any depth or character.
Khalid attempts to make his words sincere, whispering intimacies like “swishers make my throat hurt.” Yet Khalid’s lyrics concerning teenage feuds with parents, reminding his companion about “All the things that I know / That your parents don’t / They don’t care like I do,” build to his most underwhelming chorus to date. It is a moment that lacks maturity and seems misplaced within the album, begging the question of how much Khalid has really grown as an artist.
A quick voice-recording interlude, reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s “Be Yourself,” marks the midpoint of the album, and brings us to “Motion,” a down-tempo, moody jam that seems to be a counterpart to “Vertigo.” Khalid drapes his light falsetto across a subtle bass and smooth drums, professing that he is “in love with the moment / See me floatin’, see me glowin.”
The song’s outro is a distorted, down-pitched sample of Khalid’s chorus on the album’s lead single “Better.” This choice to sample “Better” directly before it appears in the track list ties to two songs together, and combined with “Vertigo,” create a cohesive trio of sounds and ideas, with “Better” furthering the cause as the standout R&B banger. Here, Khalid seems most comfortable, weaving between rapping and singing, his voice filled with cracks of emotion.
If “Better” is Khalid at his best, then the album’s closer “Suncity,” feat. Empress Of, is Khalid at his weakest. As a Spanish duet, this track is a poor example of the Latin pop that currently dominates the charts. “Suncity” is boring, feels half-hearted and sounds more like an add-on than a genuine part of the project. This track really has no place on the album, despite being the namesake.
Even with only seven tracks, “Suncity” embodies Khalid: nice on the ears, approachable and generally harmless. As an artist, Khalid is the everyman — we all can identify with him — and yet he is also one of the more interesting emerging voices in pop music. Khalid has the potential to reach astronomical highs as an artist, but to do so requires taking risks and exploring new ground.
On “Suncity,” Khalid dips his foot in the water to see how cold it is. Based on the album’s high points, it seems the water is warm, but to fully reach his potential, Khalid will have to dive in.