Not long ago the most streamed artist in the world, it seems that Khalid’s fall from pop dominance has been incredibly sudden. Criticisms of his work being too stagnant and derivative had followed him for his whole career, but a couple tracks on his last project Free Spirit seemed to finally start breaking out of the mould. Now, the pop-soul star returns with a feature-heavy and rather brief project labeled a “tape,” seemingly to tide listeners over until a new project is released in the near future, and while some of the instrumentals certainly continue the upward trajectory and become more dynamic and varied, Khalid still sounds a little asleep at the wheel. If the announced title of his forthcoming album, Everything Is Changing, is any indication, Khalid still has a long way to go to have his music break through the surface level and remove his reputation as the artist to throw on in the background.
After an introductory skit featuring Alicia Keys – who really could have been useful on the vocal side of things to liven it up a little – as a radio DJ guiding listeners through some late-night programming, Khalid drops listeners into lead single “Present.” Unfortunately, Khalid makes it a little too easy to throw criticisms at him with the concept of this one. He serenades his love interest about taking the time to be present with her, which isn’t as romantic as he makes it seem – much like his music career, Khalid is fully satisfied doing the bare minimum on this track. While the instrumental is slightly more engaging than his usual sluggish alt-R&B fare, adding some rhythmic guitar picking and speeding things up a little, it’s still in line with everything else on the radio. Khalid even removes one of the only things that really stood out about him and switches up his vocal tone, singing in a higher register and sounding a lot like Chris Brown as he melts into the trendy mix. The track “Backseat,” the only other solo Khalid track here, is a little more soulful and brings a catchier melody as Khalid skillfully switches between his full voice and falsetto over some yearning guitar leads. Mostly an ode to marijuana, it’s still appropriately a little hazy and doesn’t grab the listener’s attention, but it’s a standout among his own catalogue.
The track “Retrograde” brings in even more lyrical musings about, what else, living in the moment and getting high. Khalid recruits an incredibly similar kindred spirit in 6lack, another alt-R&B crooner who would sooner be found in some other profession than sounding like he actually cares about what he’s doing, to hilariously throw out a bar about how everyone sounds the same. Lucky Daye, who has the same kind of scratchy tone to his voice, appears right after as the instrumental quizzically grinds to a halt to make way for him. “Brand New,” on the other hand, makes use of its guest. QUIN appears to give Khalid’s baritone a nice contrast with some angelic and sweet-sounding high-pitched coos, the two trading lines back and forth in a duet with one of the catchiest choruses on the album. Like “Retrograde,” the track has a little more hip-hop energy, with less of a melody and more quickly delivered syllables. It’s a wonder that QUIN does enough to make it work, because Khalid still sounds incredibly disinterested. Perhaps that’s why it’s so nice to hear someone with a little bit of an artistic sense of self on the project for the first time.
The streak of talented guests continues into the project’s back half, as JID and Kiana Ledé appear on the tracks “All I Feel Is Rain” and “Voicemail.” The former is easily the best song on the project from the standpoint of production, perfectly capturing a nostalgic essence with elements of early 2000s R&B and teen pop with some classic ascending guitar chords and a great bassline. JID does what he does best with a technically sound verse, and Khalid navigates the rhythms well during his verses despite a bit of a weaker chorus – the whole thing is in his falsetto, which has never been his strong point with a couple faltering moments. “Voicemail” keeps things in the same lane with some more plucked guitar loops but Khalid throws it back even further with more of a classic slow jam sound. It doesn’t have as much impact without many adventurous choices, but Ledé sounding as nice as she does makes me wish it was even more of a duet, as she becomes a bit of a background singer in the later stages. Lyrically, Khalid embodies that friend who insists they’re annoying so many times that they actually become annoying.
Khalid saves two more of his safest cuts for last. He recruits yet another pair of masters of uninspired R&B in Majid Jordan for the track “Open,” as they combine for the most spacey and self-indulgent song reminiscent of his wooziest alt-R&B tracks here with a painfully static melody in the chorus, and things close out with the title track “Scenic Drive.” It once again sounds like Khalid crafted the song in about 10 minutes, with a repetitive and simple melody that’s brought back one too many times, and the same inexplicable trick of killing the vibe when a guest shows up that succeeds at dimming the spark of even someone as talented as Ari Lennox.
If Khalid is looking to rejuvenate his career, we should all be hoping that these are the final remnants of his old ideas before he hits us with something new on the upcoming project. At the moment, finding new artists who provide the same things isn’t going to be hard.
Favourite Tracks: All I Feel Is Rain, Brand New, Backseat
Least Favourite Track: Present