When R&B-pop wunderkind Khalid tweeted in October that his next work “was no longer an EP, it’s way more special to me,” the heartfelt 23-year-old vocalist-songwriter set a high for what would become his first “tape” – don’t call it a mixtape! – “Scenic Drive” Dropped Friday morning, “Scenic Drive” is a pulsating, minor marvel of economical soul-hop that satisfies all that Khalid fanatics have come to crave — that high dozy warble, those out-of-the-blue hooks — while pushing his new-found exigency (and lower range) into the future.
Like Frank Ocean without the tension, or the Weeknd without weirdness, Khalid played a unassumingly soulful young man’s game fresh out of high school, with 2016’s spaciously sleepy ballad “Location,” and his equally drowsy but daring debut album, “American Teen,” the next year. Khalid defined the ills, chills and thrills of mall-kid, post-millennial angst with first-album hits such as “Young Dumb & Broke,” “Another Sad Love Song” and “Cold Blooded,” then went on to refine his palate with his sophomore effort, 2019’s “Free Spirit.”
While his albums were nearly devoid of guest features, Khalid more than made up for them with between-album tracks such as “Love Lies” with Normani, “Lovely” with Billie Eilish, “This Way” with H.E.R.,and “Eastside” with Benny Blanco and Halsey. Along with fashioning streaming hits, these cuts expanded his sonic breadth beyond lo-fi synth-hop and his emotional dimensions beyond low-level anxiety.
Somewhere between world-weary and wilding out, the “Scenic Drive” tape ups his usual game considerably. The bari-tenor lets his lower octave dip and rumble righteously. Take “Present,” a slow banger filled with flitting acoustic guitars and syn-slapped beats and whooshes. His car-inspired lyrics may occasionally be mawkish (“Cruise around town, ride on autopilot… / Pull up in a Lamb’, this is not a hybrid”), but his tenor pulls you further into the track’s romancing mannerisms.
The same is true of the album’s best cut, “Backseat.” Everything on this tempered, musky track is a lover’s query: Do you want to smoke Sativa or Indica? Do you want the window open or closed? “You don’t gotta ask me / Already know what I will provide / No, I won’t steer you wrong.” While being aware of his significant other’s needs, Khalid is even mindful of his manner of romancing sing-speak, when he notices, “All these run-on sentences, tell me what the difference is.” “Backseat” is a softly-spun triumph of gorgeously subtle melody (Khalid co-wrote it with (Jamil Chammas, Simon Rosen and Justin Lucas), necessary appropriateness and inspired sensuality.
Further modernizing Marvin Gaye’s lover-man aesthetic, Khalid and Quin pull off an old school Marvin and Tammi Terrell duet’s romance on the lovely and lightly breezy “Brand New,” a track where each high-flying vocalist reaches the other’s peaks, sweetly, in mid-air. “Voicemail” with singer Kiana Ledé doesn’t fly quite as high or luxuriate in a such in a powerful melody, but it does gently strum its way though love’s conflicts with striking maturity. “Are we playing a game / Am I down on my luck / ‘Cause this shit’s not the same / We don’t even touch / Should I stay in my lane / I don’t want to bug you” is just an example of “Voicemail’s” brand of adulthood.
“When it’s raining, it’s pouring,” Khalid starts near the top of “Retrograde,” with 6LACK & Lucky Daye. Again riding the lower reaches of his range through airy sequenced strings and flicked guitars, Khalid pulls out the stops on the “Retrograde” chorus, sliding into its refrain with a supple, squiggly falsetto. While “All I Feel Is Rain” sticks to the soul-strewn weather reporting of “Retrograde” (but with a genuinely haunting instrumental coda), “Open” with Majid Jordan is a gentlemen’s-only conversation, with each vocalist looking for their lover’s call, and ruminating mournfully as to its arrival time.
As a “tape,” looking to tell a story (mostly about cars and weather, but you get the point), the heavily layered, titular-track ending, co-produced by Kenny Beats and Happy Perez, and featuring vocal guests Smino and Ari Lennox, nails its landing. Here, Khalid revs his car metaphors through the tipsy ballad with Lennox pulling up the bumper, rushing through her elegantly rushed rhymes. Khalid’s famed, fluttering vocal range is on full display on “Scenic Drive’s” last gasp, as the album’s finale shows off a 23-year-old moving groovily into a next chapter.