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Khalid, O2, review: intimacy on a grand scale (plus Ed Sheeran)

Arwa Haider
Free spirit: Khalid - Getty Images Europe

“To be a Free Spirit is a dream that you can accomplish... and it's not far from reach." With this inspirational soundbite amid blazing lights, 21-year-old US R&B pop sensation Khalid Robinson hit London’s stage on his biggest international tour yet. It’s no understatement to say that Khalid’s star has soared swiftly; since his 2016 breakthrough Location (endorsed by Kylie and Kendall Jenner on Snapchat), he has amassed Grammy nominations, two albums (2017 debut American Teen, and this year’s Free Spirit), and collaborations including Calvin Harris and Billie Eilish. His social media stats keep surging (currently 7.7million Instagram followers, hundreds of millions of YouTube views, and this year, Khalid deposed Ariana Grande as Spotify’s “biggest global artist”). Last night  – the first of two shows at this 18,000-capacity arena – Khalid served these heady dreams with a down-to-earth charm: dressed to chill, and assured that everybody in the place (exhilarated teens to thirtysomething date nighters) knew all the words by heart. 

The peppy 8Teen (from his first album) was an early highlight: a relatable, wry snapshot of youth, though the venue’s frustratingly muddy sound system marred the material’s sheen. Khalid may have since graduated from high school into the 21st-century pop stratosphere, but his latest numbers stressed that mega-fame hasn’t gone to his head, unless it’s for the purpose of universal soul-searching (“Life is never easy when you need it to be,” he observed on Hundred). His synth-laced confessionals wouldn’t feel out of place in a coming-of-age drama, with Khalid playing the young everyman-hero. Eighties and Nineties influences gleamed through a stylised filter, from the hotchpotch of imagery on the backdrop screens, to the squalling electric guitar solos (a full band flanked either side of the sparse stage), and his jaunty dancers.

Khalid proved an effortless crowd-pleaser – possibly too effortless at points, as internet icon status doesn’t instantly translate into razzle-dazzle stagecraft. Still, perhaps this didn’t matter, as the crowd was so clearly thrilled throughout, screaming delightedly at each familiar line and slightest movement: Khalid’s brief, bashful shimmying, even his pause to sip water. These screams reached fever pitch when another figure ambled onstage. This turned out to be surprise guest Ed Sheeran and  the pair’s rendition of Beautiful People (from Sheeran’s latest album, No 6 Collaborations Project, on which Khalid guested) went down as smoothly and sweetly as a vanilla shake.

Creating intimacy on this scale is no mean feat, and Khalid's ability to connect with his fans was impressive; the selfie serenades and mobile torches held aloft may have appeared very new-gen, but the pop sentiments were essentially timeless. The set-list could have done with tighter pacing – Khalid already has a lengthy catalogue, and he seemed  reluctant to leave his seated crooner's position – but it was pleasingly spiked with bangers: the hook-up riff of Location; the psych-funk hints of Paradise; the infectious Talk. This Free Spirit sent pulses racing, without breaking out of his comfort zone.