The sudden popularity of El Paso crooner Khalid is hard to fathom, and the speed at which he’s achieved it even more so. Khalid is at time of writing the 6th most streamed artist on Spotify. He’s twenty one years of age – a couple of years ago he was a teenager uploading tracks to Soundcloud. Now, he’s selling out arenas.
But tonight he isn’t doing it alone. It’s a truly bumper night at the First Direct, with home-grown support in the form of Raye & Mabel, both superstars in their own right.
Raye’s opening set was short but punchy: energetic and fanatically received. She gets the first sing-along of the night on ‘Decline’, her break-up mini-epic released last year. Like Mabel, she has found popularity in the new opportunities that have sprung up between R&B, pop & grime. Her tracks are defined by short bursts of frantic rhythm, blown out by her three piece backing band.
It’s notable that both supports are benefactors of Jax Jones – these tracks produce highlights in both sets, with Raye closing her slot with the Jones collab ‘You Don’t Know Me’, extended into a prolonged wig-out with screeching guitar.
Mabel follows soon afterwards, eschewing a touring band for a dance troupe; the music being mixed live by a DJ in the back. This decision pays off in spades: Mabel’s dancers steal the show. Looking like they’ve raided the local trades shop of all their high vis work trousers, the foursome are expressive and fierce, perfectly accentuating the no-nonsense feminism in Mabel’s lyrics. They are tight as a drum all night, and a joy to watch.
Opening with ‘Fine Line’, it’s startling how many essential tracks Mabel has produced already: ‘Finders Keepers’, ‘Bad Behaviour’, ‘Ring Ring’, ‘Mad Love’ all command attention. ‘Don’t Call Me Up’, her first true smash, closes her set with a moment of sheer triumph.
The arrival of the main act is heralded by a deafening roar of screams. Most of ‘Free Spirit’ & ‘8TEEN’ are barely audible against the din: it puts your teeth on edge, and must have sent every dog within a five mile radius running for the hills.
Thankfully when the hysteria dies down, Khalid is able to showcase his USP: his gorgeously warm vocals, which seem to segue effortlessly from buttery smooth to worn and wounded. During ‘Eastside’, his voice cracks and bends at just the right moments, and he brings a twinkling charm to his breakout single ‘Location’.
His easy appearance – a jumper, chinos and converse – along with a large open stage, all accentuate his most endearing characteristic – relatability. While he is one of the first superstars of the age of streaming, he hasn’t lost that sense of where he’s from, and what he’s about.
He’s still romantic, a little moony, and his songs tap into the naivety of being a teenager, something his largely female teen audience obviously relate to. Though when the asks “Whose been listening since 2017?” as if that’s a long long time ago, you can’t help but snigger. It’s that lack of cynicism which make these songs sparkle; ‘Talk’ is pure magic, and even the more functional pop of Marshmello collab ‘Silence’ is pretty.
The kids tonight got their money’s worth.