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.”