Hearing a lonely American teen sing softly and sweetly about coming of age — barely out of high school, with his adolescent weed-booze-and romance fantasia freshly intact — is what made Khalid Robinson a crucial fire-starter of the new R&B movement.
His rough voice and its melancholy ache were the vocal equivalent of a furrowed brow; his breezy, surprisingly lo-fi music provided a mix of ’80s synth-soul and blissful beats. Khalid’s debut album, 2017’s “American Teen,” was an exquisite vision of the same “quiet storm” Smokey Robinson sang about in 1975. Replace Smokey’s pillow talk with Khalid’s obsession with immediate connection, Internet camaraderie, cellphone photo albums and Uber hookups, then add in the folly, frolic and fragility of what it means to be a teen, and you got a modern, multi-platinum artist hinting at the past but racing into the future.
Everybody’s got to grow up someday, and for Khalid, two years of maturation has made something of a difference with “Free Spirit.” Here, at 21, the El Paso-raised vocalist and composer kicks — or shuffles — everything up a notch with a handful of fresh producers (including Digi, Charlie Handsome and Hit-Boy), richer, more lustrous sounds, and further explorations into AutoTune. But the first album’s sense of anxiety and insecurity remains. This time, though, the problem with being Khalid has at least as much to do with fame and notoriety as the pre-existing condition of restless youth. No longer surrounded by the fellow “young, dumb, and broke” high school pals of “American Teen,” Khalid must wade the machinations of his new world all on his own.
“it’s a shame you don’t want me,” intones Khalid through the tech-y stringed din of “Intro,” before swimming into “Bad Luck” with a mournful falsetto and a bushel-full of doubt. “No one really means it when they’re wishing you well / I got no one to call, no one / And people only love you when they’re needing your wealth,” he sings through a tangle of plucky repetitive guitars about the shaky, shallow ground he’s standing on once he’s reached the top.
Those same guitars are slowed down and detuned, with a clacking pulse behind them, as Khalid “puts my phone on silent” and tries to go about the business of romance on “My Bad.” Yet he’s thwarted at every turn. “I’ll take you home if you let me / Just promise you won’t forget me,” sings Khalid on the flickering funk-lite of “Outta My Head,” which, despite John Mayer’s withering solo guitar, must be soul music’s most unconfident track.
Then there is “Better.” The contagious cymbal-dancing, piano-tinkling mid-tempo smoothie with production by the Stargate crew and a Roger-like talk-box solo (makes Khalid seem content about the passion of a secret affair — that is, until he sings “Just hold me in the dark/No one’s gotta know what we do.” Is this undercover affair okay with him? The high school Khalid craved teen love out in the open. Has he grown so cloistered in two years?
Hardly. Not only does the syncopated, slab-synth-pop of “Talk” (penned with the UK dance duo Disclosure) apologize “for moving too far” too fast, he sings — through multiple harmony versions of his own voice — that “there’s no reason we should hide” and wants little more than the intimacy of time and patience. “Can’t we just talk / Figure out where we’re going?” Khalid questions, as politely as an orphan in “Oliver!” That same patiently-waiting lyrical idea is the topic of “Right Back,” only here done up in weird, whammy-bar electronica with a lower-octave croon from Khalid for deeper, stringer emphasis.
A similar vocal tenor (low, like Bill Withers) and a detuned, wah-wah-filled backing track (think “Young Americans” played backwards through a filter) allow Khalid to sound luridly sleazy without worrying about that wait. The jangly acoustic guitars, light trap rhythms and flanged bass of “Hundred” mark his entrée into latter-day New Order territory, but with a churning discontent that seems to get to him increasingly with each musical moment within this sophomore effort. “Everybody wants a favor, everybody needs me / But I’m too busy trying to fight away all of my demons,” he whispers.
By the time he hits the back-to-back of the title tune and “Twenty One” — easily the most dramatic moment of “Free Spirit” — Khalid goes from softly pumping guitars and a feeling of letting go to a tougher, near-baritone vocal where he reminisces about love under the bleachers, perhaps the last weightless time of his life. No sooner than he’s had that happy memory, he’s racked with guilt and shame. “I’m in pain / But I’m to blame / To end this fight / I have to change,” he sings on the latter track, filled with frustration and fraught with emotion.
For all that, you can still hear something positive, maybe even optimistic, in the pause and sudden acknowledgement in his voice that youth is over and high school friends are gone, and that life now is filled with crusty managers and cloying paramours he can never truly trust. Maybe that spirit isn’t exactly free, but it is rich. With experience, among other things.
(Right Hand Music Group/RCA Records)