It’s back-to-back huge weeks at No. 1 for the two ascendant pop stars behind the 2018 Hot 100 hit “Lovely”: After Billie Eilish’s blockbuster opening frame for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? last week, it’s Khalid‘s turn to top the Billboard 200 this week, moving over 200,000 equivalent album units of sophomore set Free Spirit on the chart dated Apr. 20.
Even with the impressive opening numbers for the 21-year-old Khalid — the best sales week of his relatively short career to date — Free Spirit has drawn some mixed reviews, and has yet to spawn a hit single on the level of his radio-conquering 2018 collabs “Love Lies” and “Eastside.” But are those hits still to come from Free Spirit? And how fair is some of the criticism he’s received for the set so far?
Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.
1. Free Spirit moves 202,000 equivalent album units in its first week — how happy should Khalid be with that number?
Carl Lamarre: I think 202k is a significant number for Khalid. Let’s remember that when he dropped his debut album American Teen in 2017, he bowed at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 with a first week of 37,000. So within that two-year window, he has not only bloomed into a perennial guest-verse star, carving hooks for the likes of Benny Blanco, Calvin Harris, and Marshmello, but a pop titan who is about to head off his first arena tour this June. That’s some serious elevation for the youngster.
Jason Lipshutz: Very happy, if a little short of thrilled. Khalid has a top 20 single on the Billboard Hot 100, an arena tour coming and a ton of goodwill — he’s a legitimate star whose Free Spirit was by far the most high-profile album issued during the April 5 release week. A 202k first week (with 85,000 in pure sales) is very impressive for a young artist on his second album, if a little short of the superstar debut of Ariana Grande earlier this year, as well as the hype-affirming Billie Eilish bow one week prior. But give Khalid credit for generating enough interest to score a strong No. 1 debut after never really disappearing over the past two years, thanks to several collaborations and single releases. Also give the album’s 17 (!) songs credit for no doubt bolstering those first-week streaming totals.
Joe Lynch: Massively happy: 202k is a great first-week number for anyone, but especially when you consider that his debut American Teen didn’t hit numbers in that range for any single week, it seems like a huge achievement. Also, “Better” and “Talk” are doing well, but his biggest hit at the moment still comes alongside Halsey and Benny Blanco on radio smash “Eastside” — which isn’t even on his album — so moving that number without the benefit of a runaway hit is impressive. And with so much of that sum in traditional album sales, it shows he has a listenership that’s not just casually interested.
Andrew Unterberger: Solidly happy, though yeah, maybe a little short of ecstatic. That’s a pretty big number for just about anyone in 2019 — particularly someone who was still only lightly familiar to pop audiences even this time two years ago. But is it Whoa We Didn’t Realize It Was Like THAT big? Not really — not for a 17-song set that’s already had four hits on the Hot 100. It’s as big as it needed to be keep Khalid’s rising star on track, and that’s good enough.
Christine Werthman: Let’s see. American Teen did 37,000? So by my calculations, 200,000 marks a 440% percent increase in first-week sales for Khalid, which seems like something he should be happy about. Though Billie Eilish got 313,000, so…
2. Of the advance tracks from this set — “Better,” “Saturday Nights,” “Talk,” “My Bad,” “Self,” “Don’t Pretend” — none has really separated itself as the big song from this Khalid era. Does any one of them particularly stand out from the pack to you?
Carl Lamarre: “Better” and “My Bad” both stick out to me the most. The latter in particular is a silent heater that cuts deep at the heart of floundering relationships. Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves that Khalid is only 21, but his ability to pen emotive lyrics about love and heartbreak makes him that much more intriguing as a star. “Gotta put my phone on silent,” is a line that every fallen romantic in a broken relationship can relate to.
Jason Lipshutz: “Better” has quietly crept into the upper reaches of the Hot 100, thanks to a hook that subtly separates itself from the rest of Free Spirit. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about the trap-beat-assisted story of secret romance relative to the rest of Khalid’s discography, but the way he hunkers down on the line “Nothing feels better than this” as the percussion washes over his voice creates a feeling of melancholy worthy of replay.
Joe Lynch: I love “Saturday Nights”; I think it’s the album’s highlight. It’s the kind of gently insistent melody that sneaks up on you and latches on to your brain, and I’m sure to someone in their teens the line about “All the things that I know / that your parents don’t” seems impossibly romantic. With the Kane Brown remix (which is also excellent), I see this one becoming a sleeper hit.
Andrew Unterberger: Put me down for “Saturday Nights” as well, which has the kind of secret smile to it that most of the great young love songs do — even if his and Kane Brown’s performance of it at the ACMs last week was a little rough. Love Khalid going the anti-streaming-count approach of saving it for the very end of the album, too, where it serves as an unexpected and joyous set capper.
Christine Werthman: Definitely “Talk,” which he did with Disclosure. That’s the only one that doesn’t sound so glum and Quaalude-y, thanks to the more upbeat clap track, the brighter synths and the fatter, springier beat. Khalid is moodier overall on this album, a little more pessimistic, but he’s got those flirty “Location” vibes on “Talk.” I hate to say I miss the old Khalid, but maybe I do?
3. That still leaves 11 tracks to go on Free Spirit. What else on the album was the most pleasant surprise to you?
Carl Lamarre: I’m gonna go with “Hundred.” To me, Khalid has already cemented himself as the protagonist of contemporary pop. He’s your everyday good guy, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to be stepped on and taken advantage of. On “Hundred,” he speaks on being able to cut off shifty friendships with no regard. With Khalid, no bond is bulletproof, so be sure to stay 100 with him at all times.
Jason Lipshutz: My first reaction to the John Mayer collaboration “Outta My Head” was disappointment, as the featured artist’s contribution was seemingly limited to a few guitar screeches in the song’s back half. Yet repeated listens have been rewarding, as the disco-tinged groove has an airy quality highlighted by a call-and-response chorus. Even if “Outta My Head” could have used a little more of Mayer’s personality, the song certainly cuts from the same shimmery cloth as his fantastic single from last year, “New Light.” Maybe it never gets selected as a single, but I could see “Outta My Head” taking off as a highlight on Khalid’s upcoming tour.
Joe Lynch: I might go with the title track as the most pleasant surprise – the guitar tone and atmosphere is very reminiscent of Roxy Music’s sophisti-pop classic Avalon. Khalid is certainly a musical omnivore, but I wasn’t expecting him to go Bryan Ferry/Phil Manzanera on us.
Andrew Unterberger: “Outta My Head,” absolutely. The Mayer credit will earn it the most attention (and maybe the most streams — it was easily the highest-ranking song from Free Spirit on last week’s Spotify 200 chart that wasn’t previously released), but really I dig it because it feels most like a spiritual sequel to my favorite song on American Teen, “8TEEN.” It’s got the same giddy mid-tempo synth-pop groove and let’s-go-out-tonight feeling of momentum that generally make Khalid’s gentle come-ons so irresistible. And the Mayer guitar break is a nice bonus, no doubt.
Christine Werthman: “Right Back” is also a standout for me because it’s like a little burst of sunshine amid the gloom. That said, I also kind of love how jaded he is in “Hundred”: “Got a hundred friends, but I’ll cut ’em off, I don’t need em / Not like any of them gave a fuck if I was breathing.” Yikes! Also when he says, “Everybody wants a favor, everybody needs me / But I’m too busy trying to fight away all of my demons,” maybe he’s talking about everyone asking him to collaborate. Leave Khalid alone! You’re stressing him out!
4. Free Spirit has received some criticism for being kinda same-y. How fair is that? What do you think the biggest factor is in the album coming off a little monochrome?
Carl Lamarre: I can agree with that sentiment. I think the production on Free Spirit can be a bit predictable and dull. Khalid can do colorful records and thrive as proven by his past collaborations with Marshmello and Imagine Dragons. If you feed Khalid more uptempo records, I think he can evolve into a permanent resident on the Hot 100 charts. He’s versatile enough to do so.
Jason Lipshutz: Free Spirit remains a compelling listen, even if, as I wrote upon its release, the album suffers from a lack of musical chances taken. That’s ultimately the album’s dilemma: Khalid has discovered a rhythmic pop formula that’s both crowd-pleasing and sonically engaging, but with that same formula applied to all 17 tracks on his sophomore album, sections of the full-length tend to blend together. It would be simple to blame the various album producers for concocting a pallid collection of beats, but the songwriting also suffers from an easiness to please that curbs off the exciting detours Khalid could have taken. Overall, the album is far from boring, but if Khalid is going to take more risks on future projects, those risks have to start with the songs themselves.
Joe Lynch: It’s absolutely fair. I think it’s actually more musically diverse than it seems on first blush — there’s a wider sonic and instrumental palette here than some critics have noticed — but the issue is that the delivery and energy level remain consistent throughout. And when an album is an hour and 17 tracks, that’s going to get same-y; you need some peaks and valleys in terms of vocal delivery and intensity. We don’t get that, and the album suffers for that reason.
Andrew Unterberger: I think the sameiness has been overstated: The album does maybe have four or five sonic sweet spots that it kinda cycles between, but even across a 17-track set, that’s still pretty diverse for 2019. It is reasonable to say that Khalid is going to have to make a jump as a songwriter at some point — he’s still a little better at writing hooks than really telling stories at this point, and his personality can get kinda blurry and obscured as a result — but I don’t think we’re at the point yet where his albums are wearing out their run-times. That title isn’t doing him any favors, though; maybe Coloring Brightly Inside the Lines was already taken?
Christine Werthman: Pretty fair assessment. Most of it is a real mid-tempo drag, and I could not sing back one of the hooks from memory if you paid me. Well, maybe if you paid me a lot I could make something up, but it wouldn’t actually be a real hook from the album.
5. If you could recommend one producer or production team for Khalid to work with to give his next project a little bit of a jolt, who would it be?
Carl Lamarre: I’m curious to hear what a Skrillex and Khalid record would do. Better yet, I would be here for a collaboration between him and The Stereotypes. These guys have a knack for creating electric records such as Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” and “Finesse.” If you hand Khalid a high-powered track with that kind of punch, he’s going to become an unstoppable force in the foreseeable future.
Jason Lipshutz: Get Pharrell on the phone! Williams stays producing irresistible songs across pop, R&B and hip-hop — just look at what he did with Ariana Grande’s “R.E.M.,” The Carters’ “Apeshit” and Migos’ “Stir Fry” last year. Obviously his reputation precedes itself, but Williams might be able to unlock some different shades in Khalid’s approach while still catering to his unique vocal gifts. Even if he doesn’t helm Khalid’s next album, two of three Williams-produced tracks might offer the type of daring sonic choices that Free Spirit unfortunately lacks. “Interesting detours” would be the worst-case scenario; the best case would be getting Khalid his own “Sing,” “Alright” or “Happy.”
Joe Lynch: Frank Dukes. Between his work in the pop realm (Camila’s “Havana”), the R&B/hip-hop world (The Weeknd and Kendrick’s “Pray For Me” on the Black Panther soundtrack) and everything in between (Post Malone’s “Wow”), he’s giving really distinct, interesting vibes to whatever songs he touches. And I think he might match up nicely with a fellow musical shapeshifter like Khalid. But I’d also be interested to see Khalid step outside of his comfort zone and do something with a crew like the Stereotypes (who are behind both Bruno and Cardi collabs) and try his hand at something unabashedly fun.
Andrew Unterberger: Too easy to ask for Billie Eilish’s writer/producer brother FINNEAS? I’m not sure that we need Khalid to dramatically change the kind of songs he’s doing in terms of style and tempo, I’d just love for them to be a little edgier and deeper. Get FINNEAS to draw out Khalid’s inner weirder and then throw on some creaking floorboards and buzzing power drills and shit on the tracks, and now we’re really talking.
Christine Werthman: How about The-Dream? Or maybe just everyone credited as a producer on Beyoncé’s third album, because Khalid needs to find his own Sasha Fierce? But really, I think The-Dream could be an interesting person to start with — he knows his way around the more classic-sounding R&B that Khalid likes, but I think he would put an “-er” on everything: sexier, livelier, hookier, funner, memorabler. Some of those aren’t real words, but I think the you catch my drift.