Khalid became a voice for young adults of the 21st century in 2017 when he released the smash hit debut album American Teen. It was a refreshing change of pace to hear the then 19-year-old pop artist sing of millennial woes without hints of sarcasm or condescending tone, but rather with genuine weight. Khalid sang about living as a teen, along with all the ups and downs of the experience. That being said, it could have been done with more versatility.
With a new album out, Free Spirit, how has Khalid begun to progress his sound with a bit more maturity? Quite frankly, he hasn’t in any meaningful way.
Whereas American Teen at least had the charm of the ‘80s influenced production, Free Spirit struggles to have much character at all for the vast majority of the album. Khalid goes for a more modern approach on this album, much of the time opting for finger snaps and/or claps as a source of percussion, as well as hi-hats on occasion. Both of these trends are already overdone, and unfortunately, Khalid does little to expand upon them.
In the case of two back-to-back songs in the tracklist, “Bad Luck” and “My Bad”, the listener might begin to feel as if they’re experiencing a case of déjà vu. The similarities between these two songs, right down to the titles, are laughable. Many of the songs’ production styles could be swapped out and applied to a different one on the album and it is likely that many people would hardly notice.
“Bluffin’” is one more song to add to the ever-growing list of nostalgic ‘50s-style slow-dancing songs set in a 6/8 time signature. This song manages to stand out as the corniest out of the 17 songs on the album, as well as blend in with the rest of the songs in this style that has plagued the radio in the past few years.
“Outta My Head” is an upbeat pop tune with a feature from John Mayer. There is little in the way of innovation on this track, but it still manages to serve as a fun little song to change the pace of the album.
Khalid, for the most part, tackles similar issues to his debut album, which is not necessarily for the worse. It is best that he sticks to what he knows, to play to his strengths. His themes of shaky relationships, self-reflection, and discovering one’s self are prevalent. This comes off as natural, considering his primary audience and where they are in life, not to mention his own stage in life.
Something that could have been improved on would be approaching his problems as a young adult with a bit more nuance. This is shown to be effective on the album closer, “Saturday Nights”, in which Khalid assures someone that he understands them in a way that their parents would never be able to. Most of the time, the songwriting is vapid, covering as many emotional bases as possible, keeping them from being explored on a deeper level.
Among the surface-level content that shows up on the album, Khalid has strokes of genius in the form of raw emotion. Two songs near the end of the album, “Alive” and “Heaven”, seem to serve as companion pieces to each other. They both tackle the concept of death, and what meaning Khalid makes of his own life. “Heaven” was written by, of all people, Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty. It is easy to imagine Tillman over this track, although Khalid manages to do it justice.
These two songs sound like none of the others, yet they are also are the best of the whole album. Why this maturity level is not maintained throughout the entirety of Free Spirit is a mystery.
Among the slew of sleepers, a handful of tracks shine through. “Intro” is the opener, and is free from the formulaic structure one might expect from this album. It is essentially one long verse of Khalid spilling thoughts from his brain as if he is venting.
“Talk” features some of the poppiest production, as well as one of the stickiest hooks. The same could be said about the song that immediately follows, “Right Back.”
“Hundred” and “Self” find Khalid having a quarter-life crisis. These make for additional evidence that approaching life as a young adult from a less explored angle does payoff, as they end up being some of the better tracks.
With this album being just under an hour long, it is a slog to get through. It is a shame because there are some truly great moments on Free Spirit. It is just that they are scattered across the whole thing, mixed in with the rest. Khalid could have had a decent 40-minute album had he and the label removed the unnecessary filler.
Ultimately, Free Spirit has its moments, but they are too few and far between to justify the 57-minute listen that this album requires.