Critical Voices: Khalid, Free Spirit

April 19, 2019

What does it mean to be a teenager in the 21st century? Our routines are characterised by staying up late finishing assignments, checking our Instagram feed every morning like clockwork, pumping iced coffee into our veins, and trying not to fall asleep in class. Our generation is cynical, its cynicism framed by politics, technology, and the never-ending search for a decent internship or career. We are known for constant noise and movement. Yet, this energy has brought with it a welcoming and growing counterculture: a renowned love for cinema, travel, photography, and music. There is no better embodiment of this counterculture than Khalid: the twenty-one year old R&B musician responsible for hits like “Young, Dumb, & Broke” and “Location” from his debut album American Teen (2017).  Khalid’s sophomore album Free Spirit taps into this desire to break free from routine and breathe. It is an album about being a little more stupid, a little more reckless, and a little more human.

It is no surprise that Khalid has the insight to produce such an album. Only twenty-one years old, with over eight million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined, Khalid ticks all the boxes for being a rising influencer and a growing R&B star. The follow-up to EP Suncity (2018), Free Spirit is his first No.1 album the Billboard 200 chart. Yet the artist remains humble, constantly interacting with his fans over Twitter. His following consists of disillusioned but hopeful young adults that shower him in praise for taking the time to say hello to everyone that comes to a meet-up. Khalid often shares videos of these fans dancing to his music with their friends.

Khalid knows his fans because he is one of them. He makes music for the stoners, the artists, and the dreamers. As the title suggests, Free Spirit is for, and about, the free spirits of our generation. Its universal quality comes from the message that freedom is internal, rather than external. He uses visuals to further explore the narrative of Free Spirit, delving into the themes of love, youth, and friendship. An accompanying short film, directed by Emil Nava, was released a few days before the album launch and opens with intercuts between a girl reading in an empty gym and slow-motion shots of couples at prom, characterised by their different races and sexuality, but all shown laughing and smiling. The 45-minute long film, which follows the antics of a group on a road trip, was screened in cinemas across the world, and then uploaded to YouTube for free on Khalid’s channel.

The atmospheric “Intro” opens the album and sets the tone for Khalid’s vision of an album that falls into the same structure as a coming-of-age film, but with a metaphysical gravitas. The lyric, “I feel heaven when you’re here with me / I feel hell every time you leave,” taps into how Free Spirit grapples with the joys of love as well as the consequences of its absence.

This motif of heaven and hell, of the turbulent sway between the two extremes, is reflective of the inconsistencies in the lives of the modern adolescent. In “Bad Luck,” Khalid provides a melancholy reflection on how he consistently falls into troubled relationships, singing that “if ya deal with me, I know you know what pain is.” He details the way we deal with relationships in the viral age. The idea of ghosting someone comes up in “My Bad,” where the singer and his lover have moved on to a place where he has to put his phone “on silent.” Free Spirit allows the singer to grapple with his own demons. “Self” was written with the intention to encourage his fans to realise that he, too “has his time where he stares in front of a mirror and picks himself apart and then builds himself back together.” “Self” is introspective and groovy, evoking visuals like ink seeping through water, providing an honest evaluation on his sense of self: “If I die tomorrow and I’m gone / Let the blood run high / Let the carpets drown / I’ll be forever now.”

Yet, Khalid doesn’t forget to take us to paradise. After “Self” comes the hopeful “Alive,” which, as he states, is meant to open up a “second chapter of everything.” Here, he begs the Grim Reaper to give him “one more night,” because “I need another chance to say goodbye / I shouldn’t have to die to feel alive.” The album closes as the night draws in. Written by Father John Misty, Khalid asks heaven for an offer in “Heaven,” stating that there is “nothing” for him left back on Earth. Loss and hopelessness permeate the track, showing that Khalid has grown up from the “young, dumb, broke high-school kid” from American Teen.

The album is full of impressive collaborations with internationally renowned artists. “Talk” is a catchy tune with big-name DJs Disclosure. John Mayer accompanies Khalid on the sprawling ballad “Outta My Head,” their voices pleasingly interweaving together over the plucking of guitar strings. In Free Spirit, Khalid isn’t afraid to experiment with new genres. “Bluffin” is a steamy, soulful song worthy of a spot in the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The single “Better” feels like driving down a highway at night, with your hand carving waves in the evening air out the window.

Many critics have reproached Free Spirit for playing it too safe. Despite the experimentation of genres and exciting collaborations, many of the songs do sound vaguely similar to each other. “Twenty One,” “Hundred,” and “Paradise” are all fairly forgettable. Yet, similar to Lana Del Rey’s music, Khalid is an example of a musician that excels because of his consistency. In our turbulent world, there is a security in turning back to music to make us feel safe, music that wraps itself around our hearts and makes us feel like waking up in the morning all that bit easier. Free Spirit is an incredibly visceral album: from painting sunsets, to basking us in the glow of city lights, to evoking the movement of waves crashing on the shore,

Despite its inclusion in Suncity, Khalid’s decision to end the album with “Saturday Nights” was a perfect one. He taps into anxieties about keeping certain aspects of our lives away from our parents, and he opens himself up as a support system, stating that there is “nowhere” he’d rather be than “right here around you.” Free Spirit is an album firmly rooted in the present, giving the listener a sense of safety and belonging.  

Pop music is frequently criticised for being shallow and empty. Khalid’s Free Spirit is a pop album. It is an R&B album. It is at the top of the charts, and it is playing on the radio. Yet, somehow, Free Spirit is also a necessary album. It is the soundtrack for so many teenagers out there—for when they apply lipstick in the mirror, to when they’re kissing in their cars under the moonlight, to their walk to class. Free Spirit is a pop album but it is also a human album. It takes courage to make music as raw and honest for such a mainstream audience, but Khalid’s done it.

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