Pop R&B is the new soft rock, and Khalid’s ‘Free Spirit’ proves it


Khalid Grace Pickering

Khalid’s first album was a depiction of young love that felt true.

Over spare, pretty beats whose smooth surface complemented his shaky baritone, the El Paso R&B prodigy quietly sketched a narrative of an amusing, ordinary world in where high schoolers go on aimless drives, pretend to be drunk, and break each other’s hearts, which hurts them as much as it does adults. Insisting that kids have real feelings too, he sang, “Yeah we’re just young dumb and broke/but we still got love to give.” After years of Arcade Fire and the Weeknd subjecting us to lectures on the horrors of millennial hedonism, American Teen felt like a corrective.

That kid is a star now, having scored platinum singles, hit collaborations, and record streaming numbers. His second album, Free Spirit, is as garish and lovely as its cover: Khalid stands on the roof of his tour van, arms outstretched as if trying to emulate the cover of Neil Young’s Decade, against a desert landscape whose blue sky and red soil are slightly too bright and hence kitschy. This is the album where he laments the price of success and feels lonely on the road; it’s also the album where the desert sun warms him and relieves his melancholy. Although the relaxed pace and hour-long running time may inspire nasty remarks about overlong pop albums diluted by chill vibes, he’s making gestures that predate the streaming era. Free Spirit demonstrates that the silky, polished pop-R&B currently occupying charts and playlists has developed qualities in common with ‘70s L.A. soft-rock, another supposedly unobtrusive genre that evolved into a space for depicting existential unease.

Since his first single, “Location,” Khalid has written excellent phone songs—condensed narratives in which technology mediates the struggle to communicate. In “My Bad,” Khalid and his beloved get lost in a texting spiral—dropping hints, worrying about misreading texts, waiting slightly too long to respond, and making excuses for not responding, before finally he throws up his hands and exclaims: “You’re following the signs but you’re following the wrong signs, my love.” If the song were actually about technology it would be intolerable, but such feints and dodges already proliferate when two people are trying to figure out what the other is thinking, and the phone-specific language just adds to the confusion. It’s incorporated into the dialogue precisely and colloquially, as the solid, glistening rhythm guitar refracts his own voice back to him.

Throughout the album, Khalid gets tangled up in communication dilemmas, worries he’s not making himself understood; some dilemmas may be one-sided. “Can’t we just talk? Talk about where we’re going?” he wonders in the Disclosure-produced “Talk”; he sounds nervous about the impending conversation, but the synthesizer hook, which crunches and glows, reassures him.

The friction between Khalid’s anguish and the sunbaked music lends Free Spirit a soothing quality. Too many overlong pop albums waste time on collaborations and genre pieces as if checking items off a list; Khalid’s electropop palette is sonically constant and pleasantly immersive, as warm keyboards wash over him like rays of light. Despite the album’s midtempo haze, every song sports a tangible hook, a jittery guitar doodle or pretty keyboard melody. The strummed acoustic guitars on “Don’t Pretend” and “Free Spirit” let some air into the pristine electronic surface.

Khalid’s casual murmur is deep and clear, yet so quavery it could disappear at a moment’s notice. There’s an underlying anxiety that makes his voice shiver, but sometimes a particularly beautiful hook grabs his ear and he melts, dazed, into the music. “Right Back” is his brightest moment of elation—another communication dance, with cars as well as phones in the way. (“It’s crowded in LA but I’ll be there at 8 if the traffic allows it.”) This time, the bubbly smooth-jam R&B chords and the gentle, friendly chorus imply connection.

Like many pop stars of his generation, Khalid has a tendency to overshare. Free Spirit may lack filler designed to inflate Khalid’s streaming numbers, but it includes filler designed to prove he’s a serious artist. The album’s final third isn’t empty, but it is blurry; as if by design, he saves his least developed melodies for his most introspective songs, which drift idly. He can’t get away with a line like “Does my raw emotion make me less of a man?” on “Self” because there’s not enough raw emotion in the beat. The rhythm guitar on “Alive” would have sparkled if only the song had a drum track. “Twenty One” is sillier, and more buoyant: Khalid, having just turned that horrible age, mopes at home, watches the sunrise through the blinds, and mocks himself for feeling down, while the percussive rhythm hook tweaks his nose.

Then again, a little vagueness is probably necessary for capturing the spirit of modern romance. Perfect definition would suggest fulfillment, and Khalid’s still wandering. Free Spirit both generates nervous energy and relieves it—a musical antidote to restlessness. By singing his pain, he mellows his mind.