Almost selling out two nights at London’s O2 Arena is no easy task but, being one of the most streamed artists in the world, it’s easy to see how American chart-topper Khalid has managed it - especially considering that his infectious yet laid back pop hits have been all over the radio for the last two years…
It’s a smart move getting Mabel and Raye - two of Britain’s most exciting popstars - to join him on the U.K. run, giving each a chance to massively grow their fanbase and demonstrate why they are the next big thing.
First up is Raye who, sporting knee-high white boots, blazes through earworm singles ‘Cigarette’, ‘Love Me Again and Jax Jones collaboration ‘You Don’t Know Me’, which momentarily turns the massive venue into a club as hundreds of teenagers on the ground level (many accompanied by their parents) bounce together.
Next, it’s the turn of Mabel, having released her brilliant debut album ‘High Expectations’ earlier this month. Flanked by a troupe of six impeccably-choreographed dancers, the English-Swedish singer and songwriter commands the stage effortlessly.
With a natural charisma and powerful R&B/pop vocal, she looks and sounds every bit the pop star. Her dancers are just as impressive, never putting a foot wrong throughout routines for energetic hits like ‘Bad Behaviour’. Mabel’s just as appreciative of her all-female squad too, as she gushes “let’s hear it for all the beautiful ladies sharing the stage with me tonight”. One thing’s clear, Mabel is made to play stages as big as this…
Right on time Khalid arrives on stage, dressed in beige chinos and the kind of jumper your granddad might wear when he’s playing golf; there’s a classic simplicity to the hitmaker’s aesthetic, though it’s certainly not the look of your average pop star. But it quickly becomes apparent that that’s the whole point – he’s the unlikely star, waving at those on the front row and flashing a wide smile every now and again.
With a full live band (drummer, two keyboardists and a guitarist) performing from the wings, there’s a much-welcome layer of funk and bass, meaning that usually quiet album tracks come to life full of colour.
The 21-year-old is also joined by a crew of “old school friends” and dancers in neon streetwear who inject fun and colour into the show. There’s an innocent, though very Glee/S Club 7 aesthetic to, it as they dance with their ring leader, ensuring there’s plenty going on to keep the young audience’s attention span - which is important when your crowd mainly consists of teenagers and younger children with their parents.
The overlong show (32-tracks across nearly two hours is a test for anyone’s patience) comes complete with the obligatory messages of following your dreams and never letting anyone get in your way. The opening voiceover, “I feel like to be a free spirit you have to let go of everything that upsets you”, comes across as lightly empowering.
“Day two at The O2, I would have never believed that I’d be in this position of life”, he says later, sharing his story of being picked on by bullies and not knowing what to do after high school…. I believe in all of you guys out there” he says humbly, though a cynic would argue that he’s probably repeated those very same words to audiences of this size all around the world.
But for the thousands of adoring fans in the crowd, who have been with him since his SoundCloud days, they’re happy just to be in his presence. There’s no doubting his talent as a vocalist and songwriter though; Khalid has come up with some of the catchiest hooks on the radio.
On the piano ballads, sat on a stool in the centre of the stage, he strips things back and leaves the room in a pin drop silence, letting his effortlessly soulful falsetto - somewhere between Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and John Legend - do all the talking while thousands of swaying phones light up the sky.
In the middle of the show, out of nowhere, he pulls out AJ Tracey (virtually upstaging himself) as the London rapper receives the biggest reaction of the night for his rapid flow on ‘Ladbroke Grove’…
Saving the best until near the end, ‘Location’ and Marshmello-collaboration ‘Silence’ (which briefly becomes an EDM rave) follow in quick succession. Later, a medley of some more of his biggest collaborations ‘Eastside’ (with Halsey), ‘Love Lies’ (featuring Normani) and ‘On The Way’ (with 6LACK and Ty Dolla $ign) goes down a treat – with everyone in the room singing along.
Overall, though, the setlist could have done with a good cut: removing the slower, more self-indulgent numbers from the show would have worked in Khalid’s favour. But perhaps he’s not heard of the age old phrase ‘quality over quantity’.
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Words: Ben Jolley
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