Words: Alex Spencer
Khalid wants you know that he’s a mature songwriter, though that’s come at the price of a turgid second album. Speaking to Zane Lowe on Beats 1, the 21-year-old R&B star labelled his debut, 2017’s ‘American Teen’, a “very safe” project, citing his youth and inexperience. With this new work, he claimed, he’s produced a “dark” album – though he was quick to qualify this: “Not too dark, where it’s like, ‘Ugh, I’m dragging”.
And so we come to ‘Free Spirit’. Not the most in-your-face pop star, Khalid has quietly established himself as the second-most streamed artist in the world, so he must be doing something right, but there is the nagging sense here that the emphasis is on a desire for commercial success more than artistic development.
Opening track ‘Intro’ instantly indicates his desire for more gravitas; the production here – and throughout the album – is more muscular than that of the comparatively stripped-back ‘American Teen’. The same can be said of ‘Twenty-One’, the apparent sequel to his debut album’s ‘8TEEN’. Where the original track celebrated the freedom of youthful love, this one is a plea for companionship, with Khalid crying out: “I’m in pain, and I’m to blame”.
A contrived sense sentimentality glues up ‘Free Spirit’. Almost every track seems hell-bent on deadly seriousness – and it’s not exactly subtle. If you hadn’t already worked it out by the 14th track, Khalid admits on ‘Self’ that he has “always had a little trouble with self-reflections”. The funk-infused ‘Paradise’ emerges as a refreshing highlight, a hopeful break that pushes Khalid in a promising new direction.
There are some appealing synth-led hooks, such as those that grace ‘Better’, ‘Don’t Pretend’ and ‘Saturday Nights’, and ‘Free Spirit’ will undoubtedly emerge as a commercial success. But it is difficult not to yearn for the purity of ‘American Teen’, which leant in similar musical direction, but rarely appeared contrived in its vulnerability.
If Khalid aimed for greater personality and darkness on ‘Free Spirit’, that honesty is often lost in overproduction, both in the music and in his lyricism. It is listenable, summery and occasionally thought-provoking, but tired in its laboured pushes for emotional sincerity. That funk-infused track shows Khalid can be a laugh when he wants to be, though he’s a long way, sonically, from being the free spirit his album title suggests.