On paper, Khalid’s sophomore album, Free Spirit, is one of the biggest pop releases of the year. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter has skyrocketed to fame in barely two years’ time, and checked all of the requisite boxes for modern stardom in the process.
He’s got big singles, beginning with debut hit “Location” in 2017, followed by “Young Dumb & Broke,” a spot on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” the Normani team-up “Love Lies” and the Benny Blanco-Halsey collaboration “Eastside,” all of which hit the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. He’s had strong album sales, with 2017 debut American Teen moving 2.43 million album equivalent units to date, according to Nielsen Music, ensuring that Khalid is not just a radio talent with little fan investment.
He’s played Saturday Night Live; he’s scored five Grammy nominations, including for best new artist; he’s worked with Gen-Z favorites Billie Eilish, Marshmello, Shawn Mendes and Swae Lee. Khalid is smart, affable and plainly talented, with a voice that displayed its depth from the first notes of his first song and a relatable ordinary-kid persona with social consciousness at its center (along with joining Logic’s suicide prevention anthem, Khalid has also partnered with Hollister on an anti-bullying campaign). When he announced his first arena headlining tour of North America earlier this week, no one gasped at the venue sizes — dude is clearly a brand name at this point.
So where is the feverish anticipation for Free Spirit, as it heralds a new chapter in Khalid’s story? The lead-up to the album has included multiple song releases and notable TV appearances, yet there doesn’t seem to be the same type of online attention that greeted Eilish’s debut album last week, and will surely be present for BTS’s new album next week. Perhaps the fanfare has been muted because it hasn’t been given time to grow. Khalid has more or less been a constant presence in our lives over the past two years, thanks in part to a slew of solo singles and a mind-boggling number of collaborations, many of which have been enviably successful.
His voice has been featured on Top 40 radio, and part of your preferred streaming service’s biggest playlists, for months on end, across various songs. “Better,” his current single, is still climbing on the Hot 100, reaching a new peak of No. 16 this week. It’s also worth mentioning that American Teen is barely two years old, and that Free Spirit was preceded by a seven-song EP, Suncity, in October, with multiple songs carried over to the new album. There isn’t really a major narrative that this album is selling, besides more music from an artist you’re pretty familiar with already.
So Khalid has sacrificed a big pop culture “moment” of a highly awaited album release for omnipresence, maybe unwittingly, maybe not so much. If Khalid’s ultimate goal is to keep putting out solid music and continue rising in the pop-star ranks, then Free Spirit — 17 songs of accessible, expertly crafted pop-R&B, ripe to populate playlists on the streaming services on which the singer has racked up billions of plays — represents a resounding success.
However, if his goal is to grow as a creative voice and expand upon the ideas of American Teen to a meaningful degree, then Free Spirit falls short. Khalid’s music possesses a consistency that is either impressive or risk-averse, depending on your point of view, and Free Spirit glides by soothingly without challenging its creator or his audience. It’s a pleasurable listening experience that will no doubt leave some fans wondering what experiments Khalid might’ve left on the cutting room floor.
There are moments in which you can hear Khalid feeling around in unfamiliar territory, as on the strong one-two punch of singles “Better” and “Talk,” side-by-side in the first half of the track list. The crackling programmed beats of “Better,” co-produced by pop vets Stargate, are well-trodden ground for Khalid, but the dazed vocal delivery given to the tale of a secret romance feels fresh, and the vocoder employed on the outro makes for an inventive coda. Meanwhile, the Disclosure-produced “Talk” slows down the U.K. duo’s approach to modern house to create a more sensual atmosphere, and Khalid capably takes the cue of the start-stop synth arrangement to balance between patient falsetto and distressed crooning. Neither song is a stunner, but both demonstrate Khalid’s range as a vocalist and storyteller, as he takes different approaches to moments of romantic bliss and frustration.
Khalid visits some new lyrical areas in the songs that follow — naturally focusing more on the trappings of fame and the loneliness of life on the road than he did on American Teen, which instead examined modern high school relationships — and those themes are largely presented over midtempo rhythms and unobtrusive guitar swirls. “Right Back” sports a feathery dance groove that it isn’t difficult to imagine Justin Bieber singing over, while “Hundred” has an ‘80s radio-rock vibe and sounds like a gloomier “Jessie’s Girl.” The plaintive “Twenty-One,” on which Khalid ruminates about embracing change in order to overcome struggle, creeps forward and threatens to soar as the bass deepens, but it fades out before ever getting off the runway. These moments don’t ever become outright dull, yet the entire affair contains a distinct cautiousness; the album is certainly long enough to excuse a deviation or two from the norm, but it’s as if Khalid couldn’t bear to squeeze in a radical departure in sound or approach.
Recently, Free Spirit made headlines for including a song, “Heaven,” that was written for Khalid by indie provocateur Father John Misty, whose sardonic songwriting sensibility couldn’t be more different from Khalid’s radio-friendly aesthetic. Yet “Heaven” is both pretty and unspectacular, a quasi-piano ballad with a rumbling sound that assimilates it into the rest of the album. Ditto for “Outta My Head,” a shimmery track featuring John Mayer, on which his classic-rock guitar riffs barely make an impact. Khalid is such an expert collaborator that he nimbly pulls both artists into his world, but their respective edges are sanded off, turning both team-ups into something shoulder-shrug-worthy in the context of the album. Perhaps he needs a collaborator or producer to push him outside of his comfort zone and use his voice in a way that’s foreign, unorthodox or even downright strange. Maybe it’s something more uptempo, or inversely, more wounded; maybe it doesn’t work, but it’d be fascinating to hear regardless.
“Life comes in phases, consequences and mistakes,” Khalid sings over gentle guitar strumming on “Alive.” “I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long.” In many ways, it hasn’t taken Khalid very much time to conquer the pop world, both in terms of his age and the elapsed time from his first LP. Free Spirit will contribute to that success, as an enjoyable sophomore record with sturdy singles — although for Khalid, it may take some more time for him to start coloring outside the edges of his sound and mine something unexpected. There aren’t any major mistakes on this album, and for now, that’s enough. On future releases, however, it may be time to make some.