I first happened upon Conan Gray’s music as I would any great discovery: on a YouTube binge. An e-boy poster child with a mess of hair and a killer pout, I immediately wanted to dislike him. Instead, I clicked on music video after music video, impressed that he could be so melodramatic yet extremely self-aware. Gray’s debut album Kid Krow feels like staring at a glowing laptop screen — dizzying and addictive.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gray got his start as a YouTuber. A video titled “Let Me Introduce Myself” shows a young, 2013 Conan innocently waving at the camera; by 2016 he hit millions of views, and has since followed a similar trajectory to fellow YouTuber-turned-popstar Troye Sivan. Unlike Sivan, however, Gray has stayed rooted in the culture he’s helped cultivate. His recent videos highlight him making art, getting his ear pierced and shopping, all activities that further his brand as not only a vulnerable singer-songwriter, but as someone accessible enough to be thought of as a friend.
The hours he has spent building an audience shows up most explicitly on Kid Krow’s interludes “(Online Love)” and “(Can We Be Friends?).” Vignettes of Internet love, these soft, breezy tracks treasure the careful kindling of long-distance relationships. On the latter, Gray sweetly threatens to “knock (the) teeth out” of anyone who messes with his fans. It’s charming.
The rest of Kid Krow lives in the gray — the almost love, the chase of an unreachable crush, the understanding that you’re being led on, the terrifying acceptance that you like it. On “The Cut that Always Bleeds” Conan pleads for a on-again off-again lover to leave, then ends up begging them to stay. “Comfort Crowd” acknowledges the lonely, melancholic ache that comes with adolescence. Every track feels a bit delicate and unsure.
By way of capturing the uncertainty of adolescence, Kid Krow feels like the second you’ve shut your bedroom door. The record is a soundtrack to the movie reel of memories your mind plays when you’re alone. It’s intimate enough to know all of your insecurities on “Heather.” It’s petty enough to understand your outlandish dreams of revenge on “Checkmate.” Gray’s lyricism feels close in a way that only a kid raised by the Internet can be. It’s obvious that he’s scrolled through years worth of oversharing — Kid Krow is his opportunity to contribute.
According to an interview with People, Gray’s best friend told him he was like a crow: mysterious, watching, knowing. “Kid Krow,” therefore, became Gray’s superhero alter ego. On “The Story,” for example, Conan narrates the sad endings of kids whose “parents were evil” from a bird’s eye view. Gray worries that “that’s just the way the world works / it ain’t funny, it ain’t pretty, it ain’t sweet,” but he stays hopeful. He doesn’t trivialize brooding, he embraces it.
But Gray’s music isn’t constrained to moody 3 a.m. listens. On “Maniac,” he has fun calling out an ex who’s told everyone that he’s the crazy one. “Wish You Were Sober” is intoxicatingly bouncy. The flip side to the hours I picture Conan laying in bed overthinking, is lots of dancing. Thankfully, being emotional doesn’t always have to be so sad and lonely. Besides, Gray recognizes that all of this drama is kind of funny.
A week before the album’s release, Conan tweeted that he “wrote this whole entire album about someone (he) never dated and never kissed.” Speaking for a generation that Internet-stalks, Snapchats, and texts as much as we talk in person — if Conan’s tweet isn’t upsettingly relatable, I don’t know what is.