Khalid’s Free Spirit Is Lost in Vibes

The singer broke out with fresh, specific songs about dating in the iPhone age. Now he just seems to be trying to fit into playlists.

The singer-songwriter Khalid performs at Z100's iHeartRadio Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden on Friday, December 7, 2018, in New York.
Like a lot of Netflix TV, Khalid’s recent sound owes a debt to the 1980s—or rather, to the way the ’80s has already been reimagined by 2010s pop culture ad nauseam. (Evan Agostini / Invision / AP)

The debut single from Khalid Robinson, 2016’s “Location,” marked a new model in an old love-song category: the kind about telecommunications. He wasn’t hanging on the telephone, and he wasn’t emailing someone’s heart. He was getting specific, app-y, and post-privacy. As he pleaded for a crush to send him coordinates on Google Maps or one of its competitors, a harplike trill sounded, questioning and unpredictably paced, like a notification. His rich drawl had a faint hint of church in it. But this prayer was a murmur from someone sunk into a mattress amid hours of scrolling.

The song initiated a rise that would see him labeled as a voice of his generation, and the 21-year-old’s success can be quantified in fittingly of-the-moment terms. He’s currently the fourth-most-streamed artist this month on Spotify. Apple Music has been advertising his second album, Free Spirit, nonstop over the past few weeks. When it comes to the traditional barometer for reach, the Billboard Hot 100, his biggest hits are collaborations with other recent pop arrivals: Halsey, Benny Blanco, Normani, Logic, and Alessia Cara (the latter two on the sadly timely anti-suicide song “1-800-273-8255”). That a 95-minute film appeared in theaters this week to promote Free Spirit is a sign of the nexus he’s nailed: being backed both by genuinely fervent fans and by the industrial music machine.

All of which means it’s tempting to hear his shockingly inert new album as a referendum on this era in pop. Free Spirit emits from the speakers like sage smoke emits during a yuppy smudging session: for a pleasant effect that is of dubious lasting significance. Over 17 echoey songs, Khalid approaches melodies with a moaning, slurring approach that doesn’t demonstrate any particular emotional state beyond a lack of commitment. His lyrics tell tales of in-betweenness too, with an ambivalence in love and life that blurs into burnout. “I feel like there’s nothing for me here,” he sings. “But still I try.”

That emotional mode might seem au courant given the generally bummed-out mood of radio over the past few years, but what feels more 2019-y about this album is the elevation of vibes above songs. If the idea is to rack up streams at volume, Free Spirit will succeed at rarely inspiring enough of a reaction to warrant the thought of hitting “pause.” These cuts can be slipped into a wide range of playlists without interrupting the flow. They can be licensed for any algorithmically written Netflix teen dramedy that comes along.

Like a lot of Netflix TV, in fact, Khalid’s recent sound owes a debt to the 1980s—or rather, to the way the ’80s has already been reimagined by 2010s pop culture ad nauseam. Gated drums evoke Phil Collins and watery guitar pulls from The Police, including on “Outta My Head,” which features John Mayer, himself a recent revivalist of Reagan-era easy listening. Elsewhere, squelchy synth sounds like those of The Cars show up, but slathered studio effects make them resemble bright coats of paint that have been dulled by a varnish (very chillwave!). The fact that Father John Misty, another reclaimer of soft rock, wrote the final ballad, “Heaven,” is clear in the way that Khalid’s phrasings kind of resemble Randy Newman’s.

The album, of course, has actual contemporary influences, too. “Intro,” made up of waves of multipart vocals and clouds of feedback, alternately recalls the disembodied warbles of Frank Ocean and the liquid melodies of Post Malone. But Ocean has an idiosyncratic sense of surprise and a penchant for sharp, specific emotions. Malone has an undeniable ear for hooks, and his lyrics—while oafish—do pack flavor. To the extent that there is a Khalid personality discernible on this album, it’s in that he really does think about the world in terms of texting. But he can’t even muster Drake’s sly sense of self-mockery when delivering a line like, “I feel like I’m losing you whenever I’m offline.”

It’s not all mush, though. The John Mayer tune has a breakdown worth getting off the couch for. “Talk” involves a pleasingly odd gait from the dance duo Disclosure. The summery “Right Back” delivers a somewhat memorable lyric about fighting with traffic on the way to a hookup. The best cut, for sure, is the lead single, “Better,” whose depressive hummability was crafted with the reliable Norwegian hitmakers Stargate. Late in the track, Khalid’s Eeyore delivery morphs through the magic of what sounds like a talk box, in a bridge that’s both annoying and glorious: a moment that forces the listener to pay attention. “Nothing feels better than this,” goes the chorus, an example of the kind of exaggeration that great pop relies on, and that even a low-key voice of 21st-century disconnection might stand to indulge more.