Free Spirit indicates that the music industry has sucked the life out of Khalid.
It’s been almost three years since the release of “Location,” Khalid’s first single and sexy AF hookup tune, and it still overshadows the work Khalid (born Khalid Donnel Robinson) has put out since then. Unfortunately, that work includes his most recent LP, Free Spirit, which finds Robinson ditching R&B/soul influences in favor of clichéd, radio-friendly pop.
One might make a list of the elements of contemporary, basic-bit popular music, and check them off while listening to Free Spirit. Finger-snap percussion? Yep (“My Bad,” “Right Back,” “Twenty One”). Acoustic guitar-strumming that aspiring YouTube stars can imitate in their own cover versions? Got it (“Don’t Pretend,” “Free Spirit,” “Saturday Nights”). Surface-level allusions to hip-hop sounds and vocal delivery? Indeed (“Hundred,” “Self”). The only thing missing from the album is a Young Thug or 2 Chainz guest spot.
Free Spirit is, in other words, an arrangement of songs that seems more marketing ploy than artistic expression. Even the title suggests that the LP is aiming for the same niche as American Teen, Khalid’s debut album: the teenagers that enjoyed his early work have grown up to become daisy-chain-wearing festivalgoers. And – look! – there’s even a van in the cover image that these kids can take to go see Khalid at Coachella this week. The least nuanced commercial impulses of the Sony Music Empire that releases Robinson’s compositions have transformed his music into a hollow, inoffensive shell.
It’s an understatement to call this disappointing. In the past, Khalid has provided his audience with glimpses of potential, not only on “Location” but also on his duet with Swae Lee from the Black Panther soundtrack (“The Ways”), one of his contributions to DJDS’s Big Wave More Fire (“No Pain”), and his collaboration with Future and Calvin Harris for Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1 (“Rollin”). The common thread in these songs is an emphasis on Khalid’s magnetic voice supplemented by inventive, soulful sonic textures. This thread isn’t entirely absent from Free Spirit. We hear its residuum on lead single “Talk,” a playful little Disclosure-produced jam that entrances listeners through its combination of twirling, vocoder-esque synth and lightly seductive lyrics that feel like a “Location” sequel. “Can’t we just talk?/ Talk about where we’re goin’/ Before we get lost,” Robinson pleads. He’s clearly in need of a time and place to define the relationship before deciding to ride any more vibrations.
At best, other lyrics on Free Spirit speak to Khalid’s continuing interest in phones as devices that can both assist with and set up unrealistic expectations for communication. “Got me sittin’ by my phone, I’ve been waiting for hours/ On my line, sending mirror pics of you fresh out the shower,” he observes on “Right Back,” while “My Bad” sees him insisting, “Don’t go reachin’ in your bag, your bag, yeah/ I didn’t text you back ’cause I was workin’.” Technology is sexy, that is to say, until it transforms a significant other into a needy thot. At worst, there are lines on the album that seem cut straight from the Shawn Mendes songbook of insipid hits. “Know it’s real, take your time, you’re almost there/ Wherever we’re going, gotta be prepared,” he croons on “Hundred.” Thanks for the advice, I guess?
Free Spirit indicates that the music industry has sucked the life out of Khalid. From the album’s generic pop sounds to its non-specific lyrics, it demonstrates that Robinson hasn’t had the space to be a living, breathing American teen – he’s too busy being a pop star. Ultimately, this means that the album’s vision is more closely connected to a Volkswagen commercial montage than it is to fully considered and keenly felt experiences with freedom.