Two 20-something guys presented their IDs to the attendant at the "Artist Guest List" box office window. "We just met him today," they offered, which piqued my interest, so I turned to them from my own place in line. "Where?" I asked.
"We work at NASA," one replied. "We sent him a DM saying to come by, and then he did."
As thanks for the Mission Control tour, five-time Grammy-nominated singer Khalid (not to be confused with DJ Khaled) had left them a pair of tickets to his show at the Toyota Center that night, where he took the stage in a NASA snapback that stayed on for the entirety of his nearly two-hour set.
It was a fitting exchange for the 21-year-old artist who crested to fame almost exactly three years ago with his first single, "Location," and its unmistakably Gen-Z aura with explicit references to subtweets and vibes. Subsequent releases—first, 2017's chart-topping debut American Teen; next, a series of earworm collaborations with fellow Top 40 heavy-hitters; and, this April, a follow-up sophomore album, Free Spirit, for which the current tour is named—matched that tone, charming disaffected youth everywhere with distinctly mixed feelings about coming of age in a digital culture.
Last Thursday, Khalid performed to an arena of mostly teenage fans and a few of their parents just 750 miles east of his own hometown, El Paso, where he moved in high school. "Last time I was here I played the House of Blues," he said, a nod to his astronomical ascent—this venue, of course, was more than 18 times the capacity.
If you've heard Khalid on the radio—and you probably have—then you've essentially heard him live, too. He provides a near flawless vocal performance, backed by a four-piece band and troupe of technicolor-costumed dancers for an added layer of visual stimulation. While the set could creep into monotonous territory—if you don't know every song, it's sometimes easy to lose track of where one ends and another begins—all was forgiven when that voice, smooth as butter, struck a note to send chills down your spine (in the best way).
Predictably, songs with strong youthful themes—dating, driving, being misunderstood by your parents—seemed to resonate most with the majority adolescent crowd, iPhones permanently affixed to their hands, raised in the air and tuned to Instagram stories; who took breaks to buy band merch rather than overpriced beer. I'm 18, and I still live with my parents, they sang along. Let's do all the stupid shit that young kids do.
Maybe I'm just acutely aware of how soon I'll enter my third decade, but I was flooded with nostalgia—lyrics about blueberry cigarillos and texting your crush will do that to you, not to mention the cumulative elation of thousands of kids experiencing what was likely one of their first concerts. It all felt very pure, particularly after binge-watching HBO's Euphoria. When you consider his contemporaries—in R&B, hip hop, and pop, all the genres he expertly vacillates between—Khalid really is comparatively wholesome.
"I'm stoked to be 21," he said at one point in a video interlude projected on-stage. "I feel like I'm definitely on the path to becoming a free spirit."