Note-worthy: Khalid’s ‘Free Spirit’ keeps him trapped in mediocrity

Illustration by Lindsay Lang

By Ryan Reichard, Arts and Entertainment editor.

There’s no doubt that 2018 was a good year for the up-and-coming rhythm and blues singer. Khalid scored multiple top ten hits, including his collaboration with Halsey and Benny Blanco “Eastside,” in addition to his collaboration with former Fifth Harmony member Normani on the song “Love Lies.” Both songs presented considerable growth and maturity, not yet heard in any Khalid song before. This was a good sign going into his second album, “Free Spirit.” However, his artistic growth did not fully translate over.

This, in part, is due to Khalid not improving on his vocal style. Khalid’s vocals are more laid back and lackadaisical than what is required throughout most of “Free Spirit.” They become so relaxed at times that it can be difficult to understand what he is singing about. Most phrases go from almost coherent to complete mumbles. One of the worst examples of this is on the track “Right Back.” Khalid continuously utters half-awake phrases that suffer from a clear lack of diction.

Other songs are dominated by Khalid’s unpleasant falsetto and it becomes the only unmistakable vocal element. In the album’s lead single “Talk,” Khalid’s airy falsetto becomes unbearable due to the shrill nature of it. Unfortunately, similar to the mumble quality to his voice the shrill falsetto dominates the majority of the album.

Similar to the vocal styling, the production across “Free Spirit” lacks any distinct qualities to it. There is an unusual blend of pop and R&B elements that plague the album’s production. Most of the album incorporates either gentle electric guitar ballads or haphazard R&B and trap beats. Together they make for a tedious listen and with an album of 17 tracks it becomes almost insufferable.

Few times do these elements pair well together. “Free Spirit” is one of the better songs. It balances a soft guitar introduction against a heavier, thumping backing beat. The only other two examples that retain some ounce of pleasantness to their listening experiences are “Saturday Nights” and “Better.” Both are from his 2018 Ep “Suncity.” “Saturday Nights” is an acoustic ballad with a snap based production serving as the anchor to the soft groove, enhancing the moodiness the song is trying to convey. “Better” contains R&B infused synthesizers and a trap beat, creating a west coast R&B song that comes straight from the night-time streets of Los Angeles.

Where “Free Spirit” shines is in the lyrics. The themes are dominated by love, lust, heartbreak, maturing and teenage angst. Lyrically, the best song on the album is “Saturday Nights,” in which Khalid explores the angst of transitioning from a teen to an adult. Across the track he sings “Stay up working late at a job you hate / Fix your makeup in a dirty bathroom.” His attention to detail in “Saturday Nights” is a certainly an improvement from his previous album “American Teen.”

The title track “Free Spirit” falls into a similar vein, playing off of the teenage angst theme, as Khalid explores his relationship with another person. On the track Khalid sings “When you’re loving more, caring less / It’s the highs and lows with no regrets.” He encapsulates many of them emotions experienced during that time of life where we begin to love and love recklessly. No regrets is our motto and we run it into the ground experiencing the highs and lows along the way. Lyrically, Khalid continues to improve and setting himself apart from the rest of the young artists today.

Overall, “Free Spirit” is a disappointing sophomore album from an artist who is capable of more. I would give “Free Spirit” two out of five stars. Where Khalid improves lyrically, he falls victim to unrefined vocals and production. Had he taken the time to polish these elements, there is no doubt “Free Spirit” could have been the descent album it tries to be. Instead, “Free Spirit” gets trapped in mediocrity.

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