Most 19 year olds don’t expect to go into their 20s with a Platinum selling album, but that’s exactly where American Teen got Khalid back in 2017. One of the most inescapable voices on radio, his Grammy nominated appearance on Logic’s ‘1-800-273-8255’ and the huge pop hits ‘Silence’, ‘Love Lies’, and ‘Eastside’ that reached #1 here in the UK last year sent expectations for a second album sky high for his legions of fans.
I would call myself one of those fans. American Teen showcased a unique and brilliantly young voice in the RnB pop space, ‘Location’ throbbing as a subtle ‘millennial’ dating anthem, while ‘Young Dumb & Broke’ deservedly became an anthem for those of us who were clearly all three – or at least clinging onto the first like me.
Free Spirit is a step up in so many ways. The sound is so much more expansive on the likes of the sprawling ‘Alive’, while the bouncy ‘Right Back’ brings a slinky funk edge to Khalid’s delicate voice. Perhaps the best thing about Free Spirit as an album is how much more Khalid delivers vocally, as two years touring the world have done wonders for his confidence as a singer, with every riff and hook delivered with a punchy energy we never heard on American Teen.
Khalid has clearly found a sound that works for him on this album. ‘Bad Luck’, ‘Better’ and the John Mayer(!?) featuring ‘Outta My Head’ all blend that line between RnB, Dance and Pop brilliantly, but a casual listener may struggle to make out any discernible difference between all three of these songs.
It’s the typical dilemma of finding a sound that works and sticking with it or trying something new. In some ways there’s very little to dislike about any of the songs on Free Spirit, but at 17 tracks long I found myself checking to see how many I had left during every listen. The inclusion of both ‘Better’ and ‘Saturday Nights’ from last year’s short, but tightly crafted Suncity EP feels more like a bid for first week streaming numbers than a necessary inclusion, especially when the fantastic title track for that release was left behind instead.
On the other hand it’s songs like current single ‘Talk’ that kept me coming back to listen again. ‘Talk’ in particular has been knocking around my ‘Current Tunes’ playlist for weeks (What do you mean no one else has one of these?) and has become one of my favourite pop hits of the year so far. Khalid has never sounded better than he does on the Spanish guitar laden ‘Don’t Pretend’, while the incessantly catchy ‘Hundred’ is undoubtedly the peak moment of Free Spirit as a body of work.
I probably wouldn’t care so much about everything else blending into one 40-minute Khalid mid-tempo if it wasn’t for moments like these, where the potential of his earlier work seems to align just right. Free Spirit may not be the career defining release that some of us were hoping for, but it does a decent job of bringing Khalid back to the forefront of his work and preventing his collaboration success from overshadowing his own tunes.
Words by Sam Atkins.