During a recent interview with friend/duet partner/fellow Generation Z star Billie Eilish, Khalid recalled the pressure he felt while recording Free Spirit, the follow up to his debut record: “You have your whole life to write your first album. You don’t have your whole life to write your second album. And, with your second album, you have to write more of what people want.”
No longer “Young, Dumb and Broke,” Khalid has been working hard to give the fans exactly what they want in a career that’s barely hit the brakes since American Teen first dropped two short years ago. Along with some lovely chart-topping collaborations and a packed single release schedule, the young star also released an EP called Suncity just last October, which included a couple of songs that made the final track list on Free Spirit.
While it’s admirable to see such hard work and dedication from someone so young, this consistent output has also robbed Free Spirit of the fanfare one might expect from an artist whose star rose so quickly. Since “Location” first announced his arrival in 2016, Khalid has been a constant presence on streaming services worldwide, and while his legions of fans might welcome this wealth of material, the relatively short waiting period between releases ultimately does his fans a disservice.
Without being given time to grow, the gorgeous ’80s-inspired haze that defined Khalid’s debut album hasn’t evolved much at all on Free Spirit. As you might expect, the vocals are on point once again, echoing the haunted, lovelorn tones popularized a few years back by The Weeknd, but it doesn’t seem like Khalid has anything new to say this time round. It’s almost like he felt pressured to maintain a presence on the charts regardless of whether he actually felt ready or not, adding unintentional layers of meaning to lines like “I feel like there’s nothing for me here, But still I try.”
Free Spirit isn’t a bad album by any means, even if it is somewhat overwrought at 17 tracks long. The problem is that the majority of these tracks blur together like the mumbled words that have come to define Khalid’s singing style. Exceptions include the singles “Better” and “Talk,” both of which stand out thanks to the energy that industry vets like Stargate and Disclosure deliver on each track respectively.
Other album highlights include “Right Back,” which soars thanks to a bouncy radio-friendly chorus, and the new wave pep heard in “Hundred” perfectly balances the somber lyrics to create an engaging contrast that helps it stand out. Unfortunately, the highlights are few and far between on an album that prioritizes the vibe of each song over the songs themselves. This approach makes Free Spirit one of the more consistent albums you’ll hear this year, but also one that’s easy to forget, working far better as something interwoven through various playlists rather than as an appealing body of work in its own right.
This is particularly frustrating when you consider how well Free Spirit works on a technical level. Vocal flourishes on “Self” and the retro-soul leanings on “Bluffin” sound impressive in isolation, but they’re easily lost in the hazy shuffle, and the same is true when it comes to the lyrics as well. Clichéd lines like “Life is what you make it” don’t do justice to the kind of emotional honesty Khalid often displays during interviews, although gloomier moments towards the end of the album do hint at the kind of anxieties that set him apart from his brasher peers.
There’s a bitter irony to naming an album like this Free Spirit, because Khalid sounds far more cautious here than he ever did on his debut. The relatable anecdotes that made American Teen so much fun have been placed on the back burner in favor of fairly standard ruminations on fame. Given how long the album runs for, it’s unfortunate that Khalid didn’t try to experiment more on at least a couple of tracks here. Both musically and lyrically, there’s little to challenge the listener, aside perhaps from an intriguing intro that misleadingly hints at the influence of Frank Ocean.
The self proclaimed American teen is no longer a teen, and it’s about time that he opened himself up to new experiences that could help inform his sound beyond the usual struggles established musicians face. A recent foray into the world of country suggests that Khalid is receptive to musical experimentation, but whether or not he’ll actually make a push like this is another matter entirely.
It’s like Khalid said during his interview with Billie Eilish: “You don’t have your whole life to write your second album.” The same will be true for album number three as well, but that doesn’t mean he needs to rush things. The young star has earned enough goodwill to take some time out now and hone his craft in ways that will help him deliver something fresh and true to him in the future. If he really wants to let his free spirit loose, then it’s time for Khalid to surprise the fans and not just produce “more of what people want.”