Like that of his sometime collaborator Billie Eilish, Khalid’s is a very Generation Z kind of success. It’s been powered by social media rather than traditional methods of promotion – it wasn’t until celebrities including Kendall and Kylie Jenner shared Snapchats of themselves listening to his music that his career really took off. Now it exists in a realm where success isn’t necessarily reflected in anything as last-century as chart placings: Khalid’s debut album, American Teen, stalled outside the UK Top 40, none of his solo singles have ever cracked the Top 10, and yet he still sold out two nights at London’s 5,000-capacity Hammersmith Apollo. It’s easy to see why teens took to him. Eighteen when his first single, Location, was released, Khalid’s songs seemed to offer an authentic voice, both literally – his default vocal setting is a nonchalant mumble, as if singing while checking his Instagram feed – and figuratively. His lyrics deftly picked at the tribulations of adolescent life, from subtweeting to faking drunkenness at parties to the perils of trying to pursue adulthood while still living with your parents.
His popularity makes his second album a big deal. Big enough to have attracted a host of more celebrated producers and collaborators than his debut – Disclosure, John Mayer and Norwegian hit factory Stargate are among them – and indeed, big enough that his label has forked out for him to make a short feature film to go with it. But it also leaves Free Spirit with a familiar problem. If you’ve risen to fame by documenting everyday teenage life, what are you going to write about when you’re patently not an everyday teenager any more, but the world’s second most-streamed pop star, who’s been garlanded with awards and just made his own feature film? How do you remain #relatable when you live a life your fans can’t hope to #relate to?
Khalid attempts to circumvent the problem by looking inward: his love life is no longer in turmoil because of the lack of interest in commitment depicted on his hit Young, Dumb & Broke, but because he’s too busy. If he’s not addressing affairs of the heart, he’s writing about anxiety issues and urging anyone feeling the same to speak out. “I didn’t ask for help and now I’m lost,” he warns on Alive. This is clearly very sound advice, but the problem, at least from an artistic point of view, is that there’s an awful lot of this stuff about at the moment. We live in a post-Drake era, where there’s hardly a global shortage of fretfully self-examining R&B, while anxiety is probably the second biggest hot-button topic in pop after sexuality. You don’t doubt his sincerity, but Khalid doesn’t have a great deal to say on the subject that hasn’t already been said. Once he gets going, he has a tendency to fall back on cliche (“Life is what you make it”) and you search in vain for lyrics as prosaic yet striking as the line from his debut’s 8TEEN about how his mum is going to kill him because he’s left the car smelling of weed.
Its sound exists in a relatively small space bordered at one extreme by hazy post-Weeknd slow jams and at the other by equally hazy takes on 80s rock: the echoing guitar on the title track was evidently dreamed up under the influence of U2, and the booming spirit of the power ballad lurks around Heaven. Beautifully wrought production touches abound – the echo that swamps his vocal on Self; the guitar on Bad Luck that sounds as if it was recorded on a wobbly old cassette – and there are moments of originality: Paradise is a brilliantly woozy take on funk, while Bluffin’ adds a layer of appealingly squelchy strangeness to its retro-soul styling. But at 17 tracks and nearly an hour long, the album drags: the fact that it all proceeds at a similarly somnambulant pace makes it feel longer still. There are great pop songs here – Alive, which sets its examination of its author’s mental health to a beautiful, swooping chorus; My Bad, with its sparkling guitar line and stammering rhythm – but if you try and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, they get lost in the deluge.
Perhaps that tells you more about the change in Khalid’s fortunes than any shift in lyrical tack: who’s going to tell the second-highest streaming artist in the world that his material could use a nip and a tuck? And perhaps it doesn’t matter in the commercial scheme of things: we live in a world of playlists and cherrypicking, where streaming stats suggest barely anyone listens to an album all the way through anyway. Free Spirit looks bound to be a hit – there’s currently too much momentum behind Khalid’s career for any other outcome – but it’s hard to escape the feeling that something of his originality has been lost en route.
This week Alexis listened toum People
A drily witty depiction of Britain as a crumbling dystopia, set to potent Dancing on My Own synths: timely and terrific.