Review: Khalid Looks Inward on ‘Free Spirit’ – Rolling Stone
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Review: Khalid Looks Inward on ‘Free Spirit’

An R&B innovator wonders what it all means on the follow-up to his great debut

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Khalid Robinson’s 2017 debut LP, American Teen, was a coming-of-age record that made young-dumb brokeness feel like the only way to go. At 19, Khalid had appeared on tracks by Kendrick Lamar and Future, and he was tight with Kylie Jenner. Yet he perfectly inhabited the world of an average high school kid as he tried to make sense of his messy emotions over Eighties-loving R&B tracks. The results reduced Drake-size ambition to the relatable scale of a dude who sang about living with his folks.

A gifted artist with a searching voice that can suggest a stoner Sam Cooke, Khalid further developed his pop chops on last year’s Suncity EP, nodding to reggaeton and Coldplay-esque melody. That wide-ranging talent is on display all over his second LP. The best moments recall American Teen’s airy feel and warm charisma. “Talk,” produced by U.K. house duo -Disclosure, is a gorgeously bloopy synth-soul strut; on “Right Back,” Khalid extends an invitation to hang at the beach, over a sparkling track that smoothly interpolates Big Pun’s Nineties classic “Still Not a Player.”

The credits to Free Spirit include Norse hitmakers Stargate, and Portugal. The Man producer John Hill. Yet despite some noteworthy cameos — John Mayer on the feathery disco tune “Outta My Head,” Father John Misty assisting on production for the maudlin “Heaven” — the LP isn’t overly burdened by the bold-faced guest spots you’d expect on a follow-up by an artist coming off a Top 10 debut. Instead, it gets tripped up by a different sophomore pitfall: Now that he isn’t an underdog, Khalid lapses into a little too much new-star introspection, exploring an ivory-tower aloneness that can recall the Weeknd’s goth-‘n’-B. On “My Bad,” he tries to stir some drama out of missing your texts because he was working too late at the studio, with nothing to ease his angst but some limpid George Benson guitar flicks. Elsewhere, why-me reflections like “Alive” and “Hundred” feel like solo late-night Uber rides into the dark heart of the soul.

The self-examining gloom gets thicker as the record proceeds. But Khalid remains a sympathetic guy; see “Self,”where he shifts from bluesy grumble to flighty falsetto as he observes, “My raw emotion make me less of a man?” turning self-doubt into a critique of phony masculinity.

That openness also comes through on the bonus track “Saturday Nights,” also on Suncity; Khalid’s voice vaults beautifully as he sings to a girl with a rough home life and a job she hates. It’s a sweet song with a classic message: Growing up is hard to do. Free Spirit reminds us just how weird it can be.

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