Khalid Settles Further Into His Signature Sound on Burdened yet Blithe ‘Free Spirit’
El Paso, Texas’ Khalid is a decidedly millennial success story in several respects. For one, he’s the beneficiary of fortuitous social media posts, which have led to unanticipated heights of popularity. Moreover, his signature musical style is emblematic of the increasing blurring of genres within the greater R&B sphere that has characterized much of the last decade and change. Khalid made a big bang with fans and critics alike with his 2017 debut “American Teen,” and hinted at exciting new sounds on last year’s “Suncity” EP. His new album, “Free Spirit,” is a considerably darker affair, almost entirely devoted to relationship issues and anxieties. It’s a work with its fair share of hits and misses, but one that overall demonstrates an impressive evolution.
The introductory track flickers and fades into an evocative, nebulous soundscape, and Khalid’s vocals emerge and soar over the warm tones. Misleadingly titled “Intro,” it’s a proper song in its own right, and one that sets the stage for all to come. There’s dense production of painstaking detail, and you can hear confused passion in the clutter of the busy arrangement, as Khalid observes, “Here we are going back and forth… but now I’ve got to find my way,” probing for direction that will eventually find its way. The building haze erupts into the suddenly sharp and sleek “Bad Luck,” grounded in a solid groove, and full of the easy, subdued guitar that Khalid teased on earlier songs like “Saturday Nights” from “Suncity.” At once, the gliding, effortless vocals are distinctly the work of Khalid, as he struggles to make sense of a struggle, noting, “I’m in love with bad luck.” “My Bad” a more immediately stirring and thoroughly realized take on the same aesthetic, takes the feeling further yet. The delicate guitar work is something about Khalid’s music that really stands out, and the choice to feature it more liberally on the new album marks progression in his artistic evolution. With a propulsive beat and soulful vocals that recall early aughts R&B, this song is a banger, with relatable lyrics about miscommunication in the age of smartphones, like “I didn’t text you back ‘cause I was workin’.”
Previous “Suncity” single “Better” has been wisely included on the new record, and situated at a point that affords it more contextual meaning. It builds on the momentum of the preceding track, with some giggling vocal samples surfacing like cloudy memories, before a beat drops and streamlines the energy into a cool, swaying number with possibly the catchiest chorus yet. Khalid could enunciate his words more, although his often somewhat slurred delivery is one feature that gives his sound much of its charm. There’s a dynamic musical arrangement that justifies the album title, especially during a segment near the end with Auto-tune vocals allowed free jazz reigns. “Talk” rides on a beat of bleeps, fuzz, and clipped funk. With lines like “Can’t we just talk / Figure out where we’re goin’” it’s an outgrowth of the sentiment expressed in the introductory track, although the groove and measure suggest progress made since. “Right Back” ligers in the limbo of relationship dysphoria, with Khalid entertaining hopes of keeping things going, with some old school hip-hop flavor to the beat that adds a lighthearted, playfulness. “Don’t Pretend” brings back the trademark guitar, matched with that one trendy sound that’s been ubiquitous since Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now?” Some ASMR-laden dripping sounds at the end add an exciting touch, and emerging from this sonic adventurousness comes “Paradise,” with a delightfully warped sound of jutting funk from dusty vinyl, and a strain in Khalid’s voice that channels all the fraught emotion of the instrumental, and makes for an especially emotive listen.
“Hundred” strikes as a bit of a misstep, as its ‘80s stylings hit out of the blue, making for a rather jarring interruption in an otherwise cohesive sequence of songs. Taken on its own, however, it’s another immediately catchy number, although like many of Khalid’s songs, a bit rough on the edges, mainly from the mumbled lyrics, which sound especially at odds here over the stark, crisp beat. When the percussion fades, the song seems to fall more into form, and the musical detour finds some lyrical anchoring as Khalid muses, “a hundred days and I’m still alive.” “Outta My Head” dawdles in retro territory, more specifically from the early ‘80s, when R&B still bore ‘70s staples like slap bass and funk guitars matched with decadent solos. This far into the album, Khalid is still caught up on the same issue, now singing, “Just can’t get you outta my head.” The title track settles further into the nostalgic sonic diversion, but adds some spiky new wave guitar and synth haze to the palette. Over this framework, Khalid lays down his standard signifiers, and the track develops into another fresh variation on a recurring sound. His long stretches of melismatic falsetto occasionally recall the elaborate contortions of Eastern classical vocal music.
By the impressively infectious “Twenty One,” it’s quite clear that the skip back in time was a conscious move, and at this point, it sounds about as natural as could be. Khalid really has a knack for fitting melodies to instrumentals in a way that picks a punch, and this song is a prime example. Things take on a fresh form on “Bluffin,’” with sprawled out guitar a bit like that of Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” and a sharp minimal beat recalling middle era Roots. Khalid is still stumbling about in a haze, now asking, “Are you bluffing?” yet as mellow as always, and still relatively upbeat in essence. For “Self,” he dips into the lower register, and it suits him remarkably well. Angularly overlain vocal lines, one raw and one heavily treated, offer thoroughly satisfying harmonies, and a certain edge to Khalid’s voice brings it all over the top, making for an exceptionally strong single. Perhaps the most compelling moment yet, it’s an instance of dramatic self-affirmation, with striking lyrics like, “If I die tomorrow and I’m gone / Let the blood run high / Let the carpets drown / I’ll be forever now.” Despite these stumbles toward resolution, we find Khalid still burdened by the same issues on “Alive,” singing, “turn my phone off,” and admitting, “didn’t ask for help, and now I’m lost.” Khalid’s singing in the chorus is absolutely stunning, tapping into a whole new poignancy, and making for an emotional apex. Rounding off the unprecedentedly intense triptych is “Heaven,” a moment of triumph revealing a new command and fortitude in Khalid’s voice as he belts, “Heaven, make me an offer.” “Saturday Nights,” another highlight from the “Suncity EP” elegantly alleviates the intensity and brings the record to closure.
A listen to “Free Spirit” should leave little doubt of Khalid’s songwriting talent. What makes the music particularly special is how Khalid manages the tricky balance between artistic whimsy and alacritous trendiness. His songs are replete with voguish pop signifiers without ever falling into bland mimicry. Simultaneously, they are at once daringly engaging and immediately accessible. The weakest point of the album is the general blandness of the lyrics, which abound with uninspired platitudes. On the other hand, the subject matter of the various songs do fit together to make a cohesive statement that seems to come from the heart. Khalid’s idiosyncratic murmured singing adds character, but seems to, at times, hold him back from greater pop potential, making for an album of half-baked hits. At any rate, it’s ultimately a strong set of songs, and a promising next step.
“Free Spirit” is available April 5 on Apple Music.