“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hanging On The Telephone,” “867-5309/Jenny” — pop music history is strewn with songs where the drama hinges on a phone call. Whether you’re a rapper from Houston, a semi-obscure German laptop-pop act, or a duo of chart-topping divas, phones often loom large in songwriting because they loom large in life. These days people don’t make nearly as many calls as they used to — “Hotline Bling,” the biggest phone-related hit in recent memory, is a bit of an anachronism — yet the phones themselves are more pervasive than ever. Thus, modern pop continues to abound with references to the devices that dominate our lives.
Several of them are by Khalid, who is becoming a subtly dominant force himself. One of the many ways the young El Paso singer is emblematic of his generation is his fixation on his smartphone. His 2017 debut American Teen was peppered with references to drunken Uber rides and saving a love interest’s number in your contacts. Album highlight “Location,” the single that made him a star at age 18, found him navigating a relationship played out mostly online, one he was eager to move into the realm of physical space. Over a deep, slow-creeping groove and pizzicato string plucks that seemed to drift by like tumbleweeds, his richly emotive baritone petitioned, “I don’t wanna fall in love off of subtweets, so let’s get personal/ I got a lot of cool spots that we can go.” He sounded like a star, a suspicion confirmed by the success of American Teen and a string of non-album singles that numbered well into double digits.
Khalid is back this week with his second LP, Free Spirit, though in reality he never went away. In the two years since his debut he’s evolved from a prodigious teenage unknown into a 21-year-old pop superstar with five Grammy nominations and three top 10 hits. He’s done it with lite, genre-averse tracks vibey enough to thrive on streaming platforms, pop’s new frontier. But his music also translates to pop’s old frontier, Top 40 radio, where he’s twice hit #1 since last September — first with the Normani duet “Love Lies” and then with another collaboration called “Eastside,” sung with Halsey and credited to producer Benny Blanco. Although the latter is more propulsive than the former, both are twilit adult contemporary ballads sung from somewhere deep in his feelings, the style that has become Khalid’s signature sound.
On the all-encompassing Hot 100, his highest-charting song to date is a guest appearance on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255″ — another phone song, this one named for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. On that grating but well-intentioned anti-suicide anthem, Logic used Khalid’s voice the way many other collaborators have, as a note of gravitas to punctuate a song’s emotional undercurrents. It’s a part he plays well. Khalid enters at the end, after Logic and Alessia Cara have said their piece about working up the will to live again. Against maudlin strings, he professes his commitment to keep going as well: “But I’m moving ’til my legs give out/ And I see my tears melt in the snow.”
All three of Khalid’s biggest hits, then, are collaborative singles not on the tracklist from one of his records. He first caught my attention with another guest feature, a raw and embittered turn alongside Future on Calvin Harris’ sweltering funk jam “Rollin’.” He’s also cracked the Hot 100 via songs with artists including Billie Eilish, Marshmello, Ty Dolla $ign, 6LACK, Empress Of, Swae Lee, Shawn Mendes, Kane Brown, Imagine Dragons, Martin Garrix, Lorde, Post Malone, and SZA. Dude will work with just about anyone who’s popping off at the intersection of genres, and the public tends to gobble it up.
Hopping on so many tracks with figures from across the mainstream has obviously worked in Khalid’s favor. He just announced his first arena tour, and he’ll have no shortage of hits to fill out the setlist. Before he reached legal drinking age he’d already logged an astonishing 20 songs on the Hot 100, and 14 of them were credited to multiple artists. He plays well with others. In fact, despite his undeniable popularity, the guy is emerging as someone who works better as an accent piece than when given a whole song to luxuriate in. At least that’s the impression I get after trudging through 17 straight tracks of mostly all Khalid all the time on Free Spirit.
When Khalid first broke out, I was excited — unreasonably so. Here was a young singer with a textured, powerfully expressive voice who seemed to embody his generation’s genre-flouting sensibilities. The influence of Frank Ocean was clear, not just in his vocal inflections but in the way he used soulful R&B as a launchpad for venturing out into somewhere less clearly defined. He had a distinct sound, one that reflected his generation’s complete indifference toward genre constraints. Enraptured by “Location” and especially that Calvin Harris collab, I went overboard in my praise, calling him “a potentially legendary talent” with “one of those fully formed debut albums every musician dreams of releasing.”
The excitement of watching a new generation define its version of pop in real time blinded me to the beige conservatism that colors most of Khalid’s work. But as he released tune after dreary tune, it became clear he was less of a Frank Ocean kindred spirit and more the kind of reliably safe hitmaker some of Ocean’s label reps probably wished he’d have become. What I mistook for a bold new talent was actually a kid leaning hard into his comfort zone, one that happened to have different parameters than the pockets inhabited by his easy listening predecessors. It’s a mistake I should have seen coming because I’d made it before, when Sam Smith came soaring into the spotlight via Disclosure’s dance-pop instant classic “Latch” then made a career of applying his otherworldly vocal talent to pure schmaltz.
Khalid is the Sam Smith of Frank Oceans. That much became crystal clear around the release of his Suncity EP last fall, and Free Spirit does nothing to change the perception. That said, production from Disclosure, the group that first help Smith reach euphoric heights, does help lead single “Talk” to break the malaise. Over neon synth blurts and a beat like leaves gliding downward, Khalid once again laments a breakdown in communication (“Can we just talk?”) and plots a face-to-face rendezvous (“Now I’m on the way, swear I won’t be late”).
Arriving fifth on the tracklist, “Talk” is part of an opening stretch that reminds me how satisfying Khalid can be in small doses. “Intro” begins Free Spirit with glossy high drama, its swirl of grandiose synth sounds approximating the post-EDM soft-rock M83’s Anthony Gonzalez might make if tasked with producing actual pop music. (Also, Khalid sings, “I should be waiting for you to answer my calls.”) “Bad Luck” enters with one of the plaintive arpeggiated guitar riffs that are this album’s stock in trade and is soon booming with serious bass power, an environment where Khalid’s sad-boy confessions flourish. On that one he effectively toggles between his usual lightly weathered vocals and a studio-enhanced crystalline falsetto. The formula succeeds again on the apologetic “My Bad,” where Khalid explains to a lover that his phone was on silent in his bag: “I didn’t text you back ’cause I was workin’.”
By the time we hit “Better,” a hit holdover from the Suncity EP, the album is beginning to burrow deep into the drowsy headspace that has become Khalid’s calling card. That’s when “Talk” comes along and briefly shakes things up. The snappy “Right Back” continues the upbeat energy, yet by that point the album is already coalescing into a blur of unintrusive mood music, regardless of tempo. Toronto-based XO affiliate SAFE coos gently in the background of cyborg acoustic ditty “Don’t Pretend.” The soulfully woozy “Paradise” floats along on popping bass and languid guitar chords. “Hundred” and “Outta My Head” are ’80s soft-rock head-bobs; the latter is injected with some bluesy guitar from John Mayer, which is about as close as Free Spirit gets to the spirit of Channel Orange.
There’s something poetic about the fact that Free Spirit’s two credited guest stars are adult contemporary god Mayer and a guy by the name of SAFE. None of these songs are outright bad, they’re just all so paralyzingly average. In isolation, they have a certain appeal — a rich melodic flourish, a groove that incites involuntary motion, a lyric that catches you off-guard. That’s what any professionally constructed pop song will accomplish. But taken together, these tracks pile up into a melancholic dream state that feels more like fodder for elevators, dentist’s offices, and especially streaming platforms. No song approaches the majesty of “Location.” Instead, like recent LPs from Drake and the Weeknd, the album becomes a bleary slog fit for zoning out and not much else. It’s like eating vending machine food for 17 straight meals.
Free Spirit ends with a pair of its strongest offerings. “Heaven,” the piano ballad penned by Father John Misty, finds Josh Tillman still in the zone that made God’s Favorite Customer such an emotional wrecking ball. And closer “Saturday Nights,” another repeat inclusion from Suncity, is marked by the kind of savvy, direct writing that powered American Teen: “All the things that I know that your parents don’t/ They don’t know like I do/ They don’t care like I do.” He’s still quite good at evoking the frustrations of young love.
Trouble is, Free Spirit is also a study in frustration in a meta sense. After being bombarded by the same moods and textures for an hour, it’s difficult to appreciate Khalid’s strengths. But they’re there, which makes his current predicament all the more frustrating. A guy with good taste and genuine talent, who could be taking risks and making timeless classics, is hedging his bets and settling for algorithm-friendly mediocrity. Khalid has the voice — both the platform and the God-given vocal prowess — to surprise and delight a generation that has proven itself open to being taken on an adventure by its pop stars. Instead, he’s phoning it in.
Nav nets his first #1 album this week with 82,000 equivalent album units and 24,000 in sales for Bad Habits, his second official album. According to Billboard, his previous Billboard 200 peak was #8 with 2018 debut Reckless, which arrived less than 10 months ago.
After Ariana Grande at #2 and Juice WRLD at #3 comes the #4 debut of Rich The Kid’s The World Is Yours 2 via 42,000 units/2,000 sales. The late XXXTentacion’s ? climbs back to #5 thanks to a new reissue with bonus tracks. A Star Is Born, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Post Malone, and Bohemian Rhapsody are at #6 through #9. And rounding out the top 10 is Mötley Crüe’s soundtrack to the execrable Netflix movie The Dirt thanks to 30,000 units/15,000 sales.
Over on the Hot 100, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” rules for an eighth nonconsecutive week. Close behind is Post Malone, who has two of the three biggest songs of the week. “Wow.” reaches a new #2 peak, while the Swae Lee collaboration “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse)” is at #3. According to Billboard, he’s the 30th artist to hold down #2 and #3 simultaneously. The others: 50 Cent, Akon, Ashanti, Iggy Azalea, The Beatles, Bee Gees, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, The Black Eyed Peas, Boyz II Men, Cardi B, Mariah Carey, Diddy, DJ Khaled, Drake, Grande, Ja Rule, Ludacris, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Monica, Nelly, OutKast, Rihanna, Donna Summer, Taylor Swift, T.I., The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, and Usher.
Halsey’s “Without Me,” Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ “Please Me,” Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” and J. Cole’s “Middle Child” are at #4, #5, #6, and #7 respectively. Blueface’s “Thotiana” returns to the top 10, hitting a new #8 peak. And the last two top 10 spots go to former #1 hits “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers (#9) and “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (#10).
Ariana Grande & Victoria Monét – “Monopoly”
I don’t love this tossed-off victory-lap loosie like I loved Sweetener, but it also doesn’t grate on me like “7 Rings,” so we’ll call it a wash.
Bazzi – “Paradise” & “Caught In The Fire”
Like our man Khalid, Bazzi came out of nowhere the last couple years to affirm that the youths are interested in keeping soft-rock alive forever. “Paradise” is his supposedly political new single, and “Caught In The Fire” is the teaser track that preceded it. They are both crisp and professional and make me feel nothing.
Pink – “Hustle”
I was on the fence until Pink said, “Bitch please.” Then I was all in.
BLACKPINK – “Kill This Love”
From Pink to BLACKPINK! Does that melody plus those voices remind anyone else of early Kesha? Whoever it sounds like, BLACKPINK are really going for it here.
Jennifer Lopez & French Montana – “Medicine”
Remember 2014, when every song had to have a sassy sax loop? Jennifer Lopez and French Montana do! Fortunately they also remember Amerie’s “1 Thing,” so this one’s more of a nostalgia collage than straight-up outdated.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Kanye West will feature prominently in the new season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, including regular “into-the-camera confessionals.” [NYT]
- A police chase in Rhode Island ended when a stolen car crashed into the gates to Taylor Swift’s house. [The Westerly Sun]
- Justin Timberlake released a second collection of Fresh Leaves clothing with Levi’s. [Levi’s]
- Meanwhile, Beyoncé will relaunch her Ivy Park line with Adidas. [CNBC]
- Cardi B leads the 2019 Billboard Music Awards. [Billboard]
- Lady Gaga and Childish Gambino were nominated for Webby Awards. [Webby Awards]
- Miley Cyrus was criticized for climbing on trees in Joshua Tree. [Desert Sun]
- Celine Dion will launch a North American tour and release a new album, Courage, later this year. [AP]
- The Weeknd has been sued by three British songwriters who claim he copied their song for “A Lonely Night.” [Reuters]
- Dua Lipa is in the studio with Nile Rodgers. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Epic Movie Page (@EpicMovieClips) April 1, 2019