With his 2017 debut, “American Teen,” Khalid (whose last name is Robinson) arrived as a teenager speaking for fellow teens, with a peer group of “young dumb broke high school kids” — a little proud, a little humble and mostly just dazedly matter-of-fact. With his long-breathed croon floating over unassuming low-fi production, he sang about circumscribed but smartphone-connected lives, misfiring romances and looming life choices. The immediacy of his melodies, the Everyteen sensibility of his lyrics and the direct yearning in his voice quickly found a wide audience.
More than a billion streams, five Grammy nominations (though no wins) and a 2018 EP (“Suncity”) later, Khalid’s second full-length album, “Free Spirit,” grapples with a more singular, more isolated experience: coming to terms with fame, wealth, broader horizons and lingering insecurity. “Is this heaven or Armageddon?” he wonders in “Free Spirit.” He has moved from “we” to “I.”
The music cushions his unease. It’s a generous album — 17 songs — that rolls along smoothly for nearly an hour, one leisurely midtempo groove after another, while Khalid’s voice conveys far more longing than agitation. He has upper-echelon producers now (among them John Hill, Digi, Charlie Handsome and Hit-Boy), and he’s separating himself from the twitchy, narrow-band approach of the SoundCloud rap crowd. He’s also learning from R&B’s more distant past. On the new album, Khalid embraces a fuller sound that often harks back to the 1980s and 1990s, with pillowy synthesizers, tickling guitars and multiple layers of his own vocal harmonies.
In “Self,” Khalid strives to balance self-doubt — ”The man that I’ve been running from is inside of me” — and self-preservation; the track, produced by Hit-Boy, lurches forward on a boom-bap beat and surrounds Khalid with glimmering keyboards and echoey vocals. In “Twenty One” — his current age — Khalid woos someone while he confesses his own turmoil: “I’m in pain/But I’m to blame/To end this fight/I have to change.” Yet there are handclaps, pop-rock guitars and layered vocals to bolster him and make sure he gets through.
Success hasn’t made Khalid sleazy or arrogant. He doesn’t take partners for granted; he also understands the pop potential of respectful flirting. “Talk,” produced and co-written by the English duo Disclosure, is a male analogue of Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” telling an eager partner that slowing things down a little will bring them closer. “Can’t we just talk/figure out where we’re going,” Khalid requests, ever so politely, as syncopated synthesizers tick and blip around him.
“Better,” which includes production by the Norwegian duo Stargate, celebrates the sensual bliss of a secret affair: “Just hold me in the dark/No one’s gotta know what we do,” he urges, amid floating piano chords and a swirl of his own naturalistic and sampled vocals. “Nothing feels better than this,” he exults.
But Khalid can’t stay cocooned in romance. For much of the album, he’s out on his own, coping with internal anxieties and external pressures. On “American Teen” he had high school classmates who shared his fun and frustrations; on “Free Spirit,” they’ve been replaced by business associates with their own motives.
“Bad Luck” glides along on gently ticking drums and a lacework of guitars, distantly suggesting Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” yet it’s anything but reassuring. All Khalid sees around him is shallowness and duplicity: “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 in a sweet, sad falsetto. And in “Hundred,” he marches through countless obligations and glances at the dubious “friends” who surround him: “Everybody wants a favor, everybody needs me/But I’m too busy trying to fight away all of my demons.”
He doesn’t conquer those demons on “Free Spirit”; nor does he succumb to them. Instead, he suspends them in melody and rhythm, recognizing them and staring them down. He doesn’t pretend to be a hero or an antihero — just a young man alone, trying to get through life with some honest grace.