By Larry Fitzmaurice
April 04, 2019 at 06:21 PM EDT
RCA

The children are always our future — but when it comes to popular music, teen culture has dominated the waning years of the past few decades. The turn of the millennium literally brought us Backstreet Boys’ Millennium as well as associated ilk ranging from Britney Spears to Blink-182; as the 2000s came to a close, then pint-sized phenom Justin Bieber rose to pop prominence while the Disney-era careers of Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez were reaching their collective apex.

As the 2010s wind down, pop is in a similar demographically situated position: marble-mouthed Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty has maintained a consistent presence as the self-anointed “King of Teens,” and last week 17-year-old outré-pop phenom Billie Eilish broke big with her spooky debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? El Paso-hailing singer/songwriter Khalid Donnel Robinson — Khalid for short — was barely 19 years old when his 2017 debut American Teen was released, and the success of that album (it’s since gone double-platinum) cemented his still-going rep as the presumptive voice for a young generation navigating a world that seems increasingly perilous with every passing day.

“Sharing attributes with all our own enemies/ You gotta pay to live and even dying ain’t free,” he lilts over the splashy drums of “Hundred” off sophomore effort Free Spirit. The lyric represents one of the few moments throughout the album in which Khalid waxes lyrically on concerns — the ever-present cult of toxic masculinity, mental health, the temporary escape that drugs and alcohol sometimes provide — shared by aging millennials and Khalid’s Generation Z cohorts alike.

Khalid’s generational appeal is easy to comprehend — even more so when considering the similarities he shares with his closest musical analogue, Frank Ocean; both employ a vocal approach that often splits the difference between a dreamy mumble and pure emotional eruption, and the plush, slightly left-of-center production on American Teen distantly recalled the warm embrace represented by Ocean’s instant-classic channel ORANGE in 2012. (Fittingly, Khalid covered that album’s swinging “Lost” for the BBC in 2017.)

Whereas Ocean often reaches for poetic abstraction or once-removed storytelling as his modes of expression, Khalid tends to embrace a literalism that’s essential to his popularity. “I’m 18/ And I still live with my parents,” he ached on American Teen‘s no-money-no-problems anthem “8Teen,” and the specter of guardianship makes a slight return on Free Spirit‘s “bonus track,” the paean to gentle rebellion “Saturday Nights”: “All the things that I know your parents done/ They don’t care like I do.”

Over the album’s 17 tracks, he details missed texts, besotted nights out, and moments of self-reflection over barely-tweaked variants of the airless R&B that’s become his signature sound. “Does my raw emotion make me less of a man?,” Khalid asks over the drunk tones of “Self”; on “Twenty-One” — a theoretical sequel to “8Teen” — he vibes over a fingerpicked bass, “You just turned 21, so lately you’ve been drinking” before seemingly addressing himself in absentia: “You’re only hiding from yourself.”

There’s a real person behind these songs, seemingly, and Khalid’s lyrics on Free Spirit reflect the all-too-relative mindset of a young man on a long, contemplative drive with his adolescence stowed in the trunk, adulthood a perpetual and intentional missed exit. It’s frustrating, then, that Free Spirit‘s sanded-down sprawl more often than not threatens to suffocate any presence of a personality imbued in the music itself. Despite an impressive list of collaborators — ranging from pop heavyweights Stargate and the Weeknd cohort Doc McKinney to pop-house duo Disclosure and Bobby Krlic, the noise musician behind the harrowing Haxan Cloak project — little on Free Spirit stands out due to its wallpaper-esque sonic congruence.

Many of its songs are composed of identical elements — a guitar lick, some gentle low end, maybe a glowing synth or two — making for a thoroughly mid-tempo listening experience suited for shopping-mall speaker systems and consumer-driven playlists alike. Such a singular establishment of mood is impressive in its own right; when John Mayer appears in the middle of the soft-lit pop of “Outta My Head” with a ridiculous guitar solo, his presence feels downright disruptive. But Free Spirit could also use a few more disruptive moments like it, if only to jolt the listener out of total somnambulance. C+

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