Khalid Paints a Vivid Portrait of His Hometown on New ‘Suncity’ EP

Khalid is a soul/R&B artist who stands out for being more of a proper singer-songwriter than most of his peers in the genre. His 2016 single “Location” received a generous bump when Kylie Jenner used it on Snapchat. The world quickly took notice, and Khalid became the talk of the town, with “Location” soon going quadruple platinum, and his 2017 debut album “American Teen” receiving critical acclaim, and several Grammy nominations. In honor of his hometown, El Paso, Texas, Khalid just released new EP, “Suncity,” which shows him honing his craft on a sentimental set of songs with a unified aesthetic.  

“9.13” opens the record gently, with Khalid humming in escalating lines over a spacious arrangement, with serene harmonies that nearly retrofit Gregorian chant with contemporary soul. Snipped, mutated vocals float erratically in the mix, rising above the temporal realm, and setting the tone for songs to come. Amid this atmosphere, comes a recording of former El Paso mayor Dee Margo presenting Khalid with the key to the city. By incorporating such a proud moment, Khalid makes it clear that we can expect the ensuing music to similarly hold a special place in his heart. Sure enough, the songs here are all thoroughly realized works that mesh together into a distinct creative vision. “Vertigo” begins with cinematic strings that sell into an aquatic backdrop, over which Khalid appears in reflective mode. When the chorus hits, and a beat takes off, his voice sounds angelic, gliding sinuously in falsetto with choirs of phantom overdubs and lush instrumentation. The lyrics take the cue of Khalid’s recognition by his hometown, and look back at the hardship that he endured along the way to this apex. He muses, “I go blurry when I’m thinking / Is it me or vertigo?” Many of the songs here meditate on how surreal everything can seem.

“Saturday Nights” is a detour from the typical beat-driven R&B template, placing Khalid over acoustic guitar playing that you’d hear an aspiring singer-songwriter playing on the beach, gazing at the horizon. It’s a sunny affair, fitting with the album title. The vocals are typical, gratuitously melismatic, effusive soul singing, and there’s a warmness to Khalid’s voicetone, and a fluidity to his melodies that make the song cohesive. “Salem’s Interlude” follows, a low fi recording of an extemporaneous monologue about personal fears and self-assessment. A striking line is “I feel like I’m not always in the correct direction / Even though I know I’m on the right path.” Having identified one’s goals, one can pursue them in a counterproductive way, and end up receding, whereas taking one step back might result in two forward. In the end, the speaker declares, “I’m trying to get so motherfucking high… I don’t wanna feel nothing,” encapsulating the overall feeling of the EP. With all of the sunny sound art and ethereal vocals, this is, in a way, a record about sublimation.

“Motion” builds a hazy soundscape over a breakbeat and more processed backing vocals. Khalid sings like his mouth is perpetually open, half pronouncing his words, as if too enraptured to get everything out. It’s an effective expression of the sentiment at hand, with lyrics like “I’m so entranced by you, it hurts.” Midway, fading synth sounds are filtered as wet as possible, and set to reverberating bursts that evoke the sound of crashing waves. Khalid’s wavelike melodies add to the aura. A spoken snippet adds, “That made me feel like I’m just speeding, doing 60 in a 35 / We’re sitting in a car and just holding hands.” More than sublimation, this is about transcendence — of physics, conceptions, reality as a whole. After all, that’s the experience of being in love.

Next up is the lead single “Better,” and it’s clear why it was chosen. The misty production that characterizes the album is channeled into a prominent, hard-hitting beat with occasional stuttering hats that make a perfunctory nod to trap aesthetics. Lyrically, it picks up where the last left off, with Khalid singing, “Nothing feels better … I’m not really drunk… I’m so sober.” The last words of “Salem’s Interlude” are realized here, as Khalid recalls, “I got so high the other night… felt my feet lift the ground.” The song explores the dynamic between two who play it off in public like they’re just friends, but can’t deny the chemistry that surfaces when they’re alone. In the end, Khalid’s voice in distorted Auto tune run-rampant captures the feeling of being captivated, in all of its outlandish silliness. The vocals are processed to sound, at moments, like horns. It’s a striking example of the exceptional sonic molding, mainly from producers Charlie Handsome and Digi, to which the album owes much of its immersive effect.

The eponymous track is essentially a reggaeton number, albeit without the lunatic hyperactivity of, say, David Yankee. It has Khalid singing alongside Empress Of, alternating between Spanish and English, over a dancehall beat. One line, “Just take care of me, I’ll let you take the lead,” stands out because the two sing it simultaneously, communicating that not only the feeling, but the resulting romantic posturing and sense of duty are all mutual. It’s a bright and harmonious way to close the record. Spanish is a language inextricably linked to sunny locales, and it’s a natural choice to sum up a stay in “Suncity.”

The new EP is a blissful recording that showcases Khalid’s distinctive singing chops and songwriting skill, with production that elevates them to new heights. The songs are unassuming, yet meticulously crafted. The vibe is consistently breezy, while the lyrics are sometimes weighty. The prevailing sentiment of the record is of marveling in disbelief over one’s amorous relations and life circumstances. There’s considerable variety on display, from the guitar-driven “Saturday Nights” to the bilingual title track, but all the songs share common themes, both sonically and lyrically, effectively capturing an inspired vision, and painting a vivid portrait of “Suncity.”

Suncity” is available Oct. 19 on Apple Music.