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'Free Spirit' review: Khalid redefines R&B

Khalid's "Free Spirit" on RCA Records.

Khalid's "Free Spirit" on RCA Records. Photo Credit: RCA Records

KHALID

Free Spirit

BOTTOM LINE Redefining R&B by spiking it with indie rock

Three years ago, Khalid was an El Paso high school student who played his first show in a coffee shop. This summer, the Grammy-nominated, budding R&B superstar will headline arenas around the country, including Madison Square Garden.

His new album “Free Spirit” (Right Hand Music/RCA) shows exactly how that meteoric rise happened and why it is totally deserved. While it’s long been commonplace for rockers to incorporate bits of R&B into their music, Khalid is one of a growing number of R&B artists drawing inspiration from indie rock.

Sometimes the influence is obvious, like on the brooding “Hundred,” which sounds like he’s singing over a long-lost Goth guitar line from The Cure, or “Outta My Head,” which features John Mayer on guitar and backing vocals. “Free Spirit”’s soaring title track also has the feel of early Mayer, though Khalid’s falsetto gives it a more soulful twist. And there are elements of latter-day Prince in “Bluffin’” and the lush epic “Heaven.”

However, Khalid fares far better when the scales are tipped more in the favor of R&B. The album’s singles – the laid-back “Better” and the gorgeous, EDM-influenced “Talk,” produced by Disclosure – currently sit at No. 1 and 2 on Billboard’s R&B charts. The groove-driven “Right Back” should follow, along with the funky, loping “Paradise.”

But the genre trappings turn out to be beside the point on “Free Spirit.” Khalid’s vocals, from his lower register to sweet falsetto, warm up every song, and his detail-oriented, personal lyrics always draw the listener in.

“Daddy’s gone, see he’s never home,” he sings in the simple, yet wrenching, “Saturday Nights.” “And wishing only makes it worse.”

With “Free Spirit,” Khalid establishes himself as one of music’s best new artists, following in the footsteps of Frank Ocean and Solange, but creating his own path up both the pop and R&B charts.

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