With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.
Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).
Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.
Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.