Yeah, he could never be young, dumb and broke forever. We knew that. And like any teen who goes platinum with their first album, the road to maturity that lies ahead is filled with all sorts of perils: artistic, personal, romantic.
“Young Dumb & Broke” was extraordinary, a naïve breath of fresh air from a 17 year-old who conveyed touching sincerity and sweet instincts aplenty with his pleasingly ordinary voice. He sounded like just about any of us as a teenager: somewhat reckless, more than a little bit confused with life, yet making the most of it anyway. The rest of American Teendidn’t live up to that single’s promise, as well-intentioned and plainly expressed as many of its songs were. Yet the tantalising hope of a whole album full of “Young Dumb & Broke”-level tracks in the near-future was set.
Free Spirit isn’t it. Not one song is as catchy or audacious as that high-point in Khalid’s career. It sounds just like the dawn on the album cover, upbeat and awake to new possibilities but with a certain bleary-eyed haziness – a blurring together of all the forgettable songs into one – that suggests it arose from recent slumber. It’s hard to discern any great spark of inspiration in any of these songs. They cry out for the light of day to come and rescue them. They flow past in slow or mid-tempo without anything of great interest occurring. Just like waking up at dawn, you might find yourself wishing for more sleep, and nodding off. As I did, listening to this album. Twice.
Khalid means well, and it’s difficult not to like him as a person. He sings with a gentle care that suggests a thoughtful, friendly personality, and his music always serves to match that gentleness. Listening to the songs on Free Spirit make you want to put your arm around Khalid and share a beer with him. Decency exudes out of its every pore, from the slow summer crawl and empathetic couplets of “Paradise” (“Don’t like watching your momma cry/You say you’d rather die”) to the worldly-wise advice of “Twenty One” (“Don’t believe everything/The shit you like gives you anxiety, but finally/I see you smiling when you say you need privacy/You’re only hiding from yourself”).
But decency isn’t enough, sadly. Evident kindness in an artist’s intentions can make an album full of great hooks all the more pleasing, poignant or uplifting. But kindness can’t save an album or make it interesting on its own. A good album needs those hooks more than anything, and dramatic sparks of creative inspiration, by which I mean an energy or in-the-moment genius that makes you stop in your tracks and think: how onearthdid they think of this?
You can tell what they were thinking all over Free Spirit, which plods along with a wearying predictability. Song after song chases after summer anthem status, in the Drake world-dominating mould. And like a lot of modern R&B, the varied producers have collectively decided that melody is less useful to achieve this end than slick electronic beats and synths applied purely for backdrop color. This approach to making music is popular at the moment, both commercially and critically – just look at the acclaim for Solange. But to these ears, it’s a deadening effect, and signifies uninspired songwriting more than anything else. Atmospheric doodling with synths and electronic beats might allow an artist to project a distant, unaffected “cool”, but it doesn’t make for risky, energizing and exciting music. The emotional stakes aren’t high enough.
So it is on Free Spirit. Play any song 3 times through and it will vanish into thin air 5 minutes later. Slick production and careful, considered vocals can’t make up for songs that wouldn’t even have been considered a workable first draft if presented to the Motown hits factory back in the 60s.
There’s no doubt that Free Spirit will be streamed to high heaven – but where does it risk being more than just pleasant? What does it want us to think and feel, beyond ennui?
Khalid is a talent, there’s no doubt. But monotony sets in so firmly on Free Spiritthat I can’t even offer one or two tracks as a recommendation to stream or download on their own. Nothing stands out. Which is an unfortunate thing to write about the work of such a pleasant young man.R