Between adolescence and adulthood, there’s a hazy, underappreciated threshold. Your early twenties are fast and ruthless, messy as your fight for control ends in the merciless reality of independence. Friendships end, love is lost and you fail to recognize yourself as the people you surround yourself with change. A sense of respite only creeps up in bursts of confidence and assurance during this period of fear, unconventionality and uncertainty as your identity prevails in all the ways you wouldn’t expect it to.
This is the story of Khalid’s career. His success with debut album American Teen won over pop culture when he had barely graduated high school. In his lovely, leathery voice, he conveyed the trials and triumphs of high school without sparing a single detail. From tales of booze-infused nights that went too far to heartaches that went too deep, his songs reached fans with and without driver’s licenses alike. It was an album that fit a distinct, special experience but was contained within a specific period of time — references to cell phone pictures, car ride apps and GPS navigation painted the scene that enabled or crushed the connections Khalid made with other people. It was a loneliness that only made sense if it was a loneliness that you experienced, and this specificity made it such a hallmark to teen music.
It’s been two years since, and our American teen has grown. His life has extended beyond the membrane of a high school existence into one of fame and independence. This proved to influence his sophomore album Free Spirit, as it echoes the sentiment that the teenage struggle of finding yourself never truly ends, regardless of a contextual shift into early adulthood. He puts it simply in an interview with Billboard saying, “this album is the culmination of all of the growth and experiences I have gathered over the past two remarkable years.”
In Free Spirit these stories are carried by ’80s synths and sticky, euphoric grooves. It’s a background you can move to, but with a lot more variety this time around; the sound is effortlessly R&B with glimmers of classic rock and a surprisingly gorgeous guest appearance by John Mayer on guitar. The raw elements that made American Teen so memorable remain in tact, though they’ve matured. Rather than bemoaning the end of a relationship, he reflects on the nature of its failure in title track “Free Spirit,” crooning, “I’ve been lovin’ more, livin’ less / Off of highs and lows, so obsessed / Couldn’t get nothing / But we’re never runnin’ out.” Through these lines he marks his growth, eschewing any trepidation of judgement for his experiences.
Similarly, Khalid explores aspects of early adulthood in themes we gloss over. With the image of party culture so ingrained in the college-aged experience, we neglect the vulnerability and escapism that accompany it. Khalid follows just this in “Paradise,” as he details getting high to cope with not “liking watchin’ your mama cry / You say you’d rather die / She says you’re wastin’ your life.” It’s anxiety-inducing, fearful and a bit nihilistic, but he follows this immediately with hopeful proclamations in “Hundred.” He explores the theme in every sense from having “a hundred friends,” experiencing a feeling for “a hundred days” and having “a hundred things to do,” but ensures us that it is all worth it when you keep it “a hundred” and “dust yourself off.” Other highlights include “Twenty One,” a song that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be about, and the funky love anthem “Outta my Head,” featuring the addictive bass stylings of John Mayer.
Overall, Free Spirit proves to be the perfect, timeless backdrop to early twenties and the slew of emotions that accompany it. In unwavering confidence, Khalid deftly conveys the insecurity and uncertainty that goes into discovering yourself and trusting your gut.