Khalid’s dancers went through a good number of costume changes during Wednesday night’s Staples Center show, but the star himself took just one. During a mid-show video montage, he disappeared from the stage wearing shiny basketball shorts and a Gucci T-shirt. When he reemerged, he was wearing shiny basketball shorts and one of his own tour T-shirts. You might have to go to a Lakers game to find a Staples headliner that changes up the look fewer times in the course of a night.
If you’re a fan in the slightest, though, it’s kind of refreshing that Khalid has not taken the fact that he became one of music’s biggest contemporary stars almost overnight as an obligation to suddenly start wearing long pants. His every-day-is-casual-Friday look counts as a visual trademark by now, but it’s also a signifier to an audience (mean age: somewhere around his own 21 years) that you can still think of him as a humble dorm-room confidante, not a suddenly emboldened show-biz grifter. Champagne tastes and meetings with Bob Mackie can wait.
He’s matured in the more important ways, anyway, with a sophomore album, “Free Spirit,” that’s a big improvement on the one that preceded it, the likable enough — but more, well, sophomoric — “American Teen.” It’s not every star that gets to count the second full-length release as the better one, but it makes more sense when you remember, as Khalid reminded the Staples audience, that the first one came out when he was 17, an age when… okay, when Billie Eilish is already operating at a genius level, but pretty much no one else. On “Free Spirit,” the production is more sophisticated, even when it sounds sparer, but so is Khalid’s emotional life, in which he’s started to worry about a lot more than “do(ing) all the stupid shit that young kids do.”
It’s no wonder that he performs the new album almost in its 17-track entirety on this tour, or that the crowd doesn’t balk at the predominance of the fresher stuff: He’s pulling off the hat trick of singing realistically about young-adult anxieties while still allowing fans to luxuriate in a relaxed, “what, me worry?” vibe.
There weren’t many middle-agers at Wednesday night’s show, which had the 21-year-old playing to the second of two full houses at Staples Center. They don’t know what they’re missing, which is something that might feel a little bit comfortingly familiar, at least in wide swaths of the show. There were songs where the sound got more retro-pop and harked back to the synthy pop ear candy that reigned when Paul Young and Wang Chung walked the earth. Other times, when the mood got markedly R&B, you could close your eyes and maybe imagine that we’d returned to the days of the “quiet storm.” “Right Back” couldn’t sound more ’80s if that were its sole intent, even though it’s a 1990s minor hit by Joe via Rodney Jerkins that’s literally being referenced. The difference is that the smooth soul of old usually had to do with talking women into bed, and Khalid sometimes sounds like he’s almost trying to talk them out of it, with his “Slow it down… you don’t gotta stay the night” and “Can’t we just talk?” lyrics.
There are tenser sounds and themes in “Free Spirit,” where Khalid allows that he’s encumbered by newfound fame and responsibility and a little bit suspicious of what everyone wants out of him — kind of like a kinder, gentler, slightly less paranoid Weeknd. But he’s too friendly a host to indulge too great a sense of wariness in concert, and even some of the more soul-searching songs tended to feel more like pep rallies when his six dancers came out.
Said dancers have a fine line to walk in a Khalid concert — they have to ramp up the energy level but not actually overshadow the host, who is nearly unique among modern pop performers in not even attempting to bust any dance moves… unless you count the occasional moments when he’d do two-hands-on-the-steering-wheel gestures or sway to the point that it sort of counted. A balance was struck: when all six were on stage, the choreography tended to be loose and more party-like, never overwhelming the guy at center stage. When one or two dancers would come out on their own, the moves would get more precise.
Band members were grouped on either side of the wide stage, not in the spotlight but not entirely in the shadows either, putting a much more live spin on some of some of the up-to-the-minute beats on “Free Spirit.” But it helped that some of the songs don’t get much more cluttered than depending on an offbeat rhythm guitar line, which gives a live ensemble something to chew on. Coming back from the mid-set video, Khalid ditched the dancers for a while and was accompanied by a piano, as more solemn new songs like “Intro” and “Heaven” got the severely stripped down treatment. “That’s the part of me that really needs your help,” he sang, foregoing much help from his band for that forlorn moment.
Khalid often sang over his own backup vocals, but there was not much danger of anyone considering the show canned, when so many of the songs ended with a coda of jazz-fusion guitar licks and thunderous acoustic drum crescendos, like so many of the big finishes in the R&B of earlier eras. Hip-hop influences weren’t so much of a big deal here — at least not till Khalid brought out his friend 2 Chainz on this second night to rap over a recording of his track with Ariana Grande, “Rule the World,” as the presiding star stood back with the dancers, finally casually mingling at his own party.
Khalid could take off in a lot of different directions in years to come, but one label that probably will never be attached to him is “hardest working man in show business.” His laconic qualities puzzle some of his elders, who can’t quite figure out how this almost aggressively unaggressive Texas kid became a superstar under their noses. But it turns out that Not Seeming to Be Trying Too Hard is a selling point for over-bombarded youth as well as their stressed elders, and the idea that he’s closer to busting out a figurative tear than breaking a major sweat is a big selling point, unconsciously or otherwise. He’s smart enough to pepper his album and set with a pop song as frothy as “Outta My Head,” but smarter in making something like that the outlier in his catalog. Because, at 21, he’s already grasped that slow-core never goes out of style.