Vlog star turned pop star Conan Gray released his debut album Friday.
The twelve-track Kid Krow, (a nickname 21-year-old Gray received for being “broody and a little mysterious”) follows Gray’s 2018 EP Sunset Season, a series of singles, and a North American tour with New Zealand’s Benee.
Gray got his start in music on YouTube, where he had been creating vlog content on small-town Texas life since childhood. His online followers constitute much of his current young fanbase, and both Kid Krow’s sound and lyrics clearly emerge from an artist brought up on 2010s delicacies.
“Wish You Were Sober” is a more earnest iteration of Arctic Monkeys hit “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High.” The tongue-twisty hook of “Maniac” feels like Hayley Kiyoko’s speed-round verse on “Curious.” The album’s blend of bouncy pop, 70s guitar rock, dreamy acoustics and dance synth shares the vibe of Lorde’s Melodrama or Taylor Swift’s grown-up albums.
Gray, who writes all of his songs, cites Swift as his favorite lyricist, and her influence comes through in both the album’s inclination toward specific narratives as well as in individual lyrics; in “Fight or Flight” Gray sings “fight or flight, I’d rather die than have to cry in front of you,” mirroring Swift’s sentiment on “Cruel Summer” that “if I bleed you’ll be the last to know.” Track “Heather” opens with early Swift-esque soft, lulling guitar and the line “I still remember the third of December…” before unfolding a very “You Belong With Me” story.
“Heather,” diverges from Swift, however, in that it demonstrates a thematic foundation of the album: Gray’s Gen Z (he was born in 1998) sensibilities.
Swift’s emotional teenage ballads were straight-up, all sincerity and anguish, taking her until 1989’s “Blank Space” and later Reputation to get dark. Gray’s generational cohort, however, is known for its bleak skepticism, passion for irony, and dark humor. Few of Gray’s moments of vulnerability on Kid Krow come without an edge, whether that’s self-hatred for said vulnerability or angry impulses to lash out at the pain-inducing object.
In “Heather,” soft, slow, easy guitar backs up Gray’s assertion that he wishes Heather, the object of his love interest’s affection, “were dead” one line after declaring her “an angel.” The aforementioned “Fight or Flight” sees Gray not hurt about a partner’s infidelity, but about having been made a fool, singing “I’d rather lie than tell you I’m in love with you.” In “Checkmate,” too, Gray’s focus isn’t hurt over being played, but rather the thrill of retaliation.
Speaking of “Checkmate,” it’s the type of song Gray excels in: he thrives in high-energy, tech-y tracks like breakout single “Maniac” or “Checkmate,” both of which are fueled by an almost-tangible, pulsating fury. Though Gray’s voice drips with resentment in both tracks, he offsets that darkness with a synth dance beat and a coy, winking approach to lyrics. The tracks sound angry, but lyrically Gray expresses a sort of amusement at how things are unfolding, as if he knew it would hit the fan all along.
That love-nausea was made explicit in Sunset Season’s “Crush Culture,” which includes the lyrics “this baby is loveproof,” “I don’t wanna participate in your game of manipulation,” “that’s how they get you, kiss you then forget you,” and, most evocatively, “crush culture makes me wanna spill my guts out.”
That’s yet another tenet of Gen Z ideology: for the recession babies, to have faith things will go well is to end up fooled and disappointed, whereas to assume you’ll be played is to claim the power of forethought and detached apathy.
In “Comfort Crowd,” Gray summarizes the emotional tone of Kid Krow, an album about the hurt and loneliness of reluctantly trying this whole “love” thing but never letting yourself believe it’ll do anything but hurt you: “Telling you I’m fine, I don’t really need nobody, but you say through a sigh, that I said that lie already.”