Khalid made his way to the Billboard charts by insisting on how cold he is. He wants to talk; he wants you to “come and vibrate”; his music is shapeless and harmless, sweet enough to blend into any top hits playlist. A Khalid album is by definition low stakes. His latest project, Scenic route, sets expectations even lower: it’s a band, he proclaims, setting the scene with a vaporous intro that spins the radio dial between clips from his past hits and ends with Alicia Keys ensuring: “We’re here tonight to provide the vibes.” It’s a shaky premise, one that Khalid and a host of star performers – nine guests in 29 minutes! – fill with a smooth and solid R&B. The music is lush and understated, sliding out of your headphones before you know it.
Scenic route is a concept record, and Khalid launches into driving metaphors, whispering on roads, back seats and Lamborghinis. The theme is less architecture and more, as Khalid would say, ambiance; songs meander, Khalid’s voice undulating in layers to sparse, sparkling beats. It’s hard to pin down the slippery subtext or find a deeper meaning in a line like, “I’m the one you need to be with, because I won’t put you down.” Sometimes the simple act of being is the whole plot: on “Present”, Khalid asks a lover for permission to “be present”, perusing reading lines that appear to have been generated by an application of meditation. But you don’t listen to a Khalid song to analyze it up close.
On the more interesting songs, Khalid takes a back seat as another artist draws attention. Vocalist QUIN commands the chorus on “Brand New,” exchanging raucous verses with Khalid on plush guitar pulses. Ari Lennox and Smino cover the title song while Khalid harmonizes: “Give me a feeling. Drake-adjacent producer-singer duo Majid Jordan swirls a touch of tropical house in “Open”; Rapper JID adds texture to the otherwise bland, boy-inspired “All I Feel Is Rain”. You get little locks of Khalid, reminders of his presence – a low hum, a serious introductory platitude (“I have to live in the moment,” he sings on “Retrograde”). But it’s his curatorial instincts that are most important in the selection of guests and how he integrates them into the spongy soundscape.
There is no gravity in Khalid’s songs, sonically or thematically; even when he addresses the idea of heartache, it is from a cautious distance, or resolved quickly and cleanly. That default sunshine is part of what fueled his rise in pop, but after four projects in the past five years, it would be refreshing to hear him take a risk. He doesn’t write as explicitly about youth anymore as he did in 2017 with “Young Dumb & Broke,” but he hasn’t matured as a singer or lyricist either. Scenic route looks like a detour because it is: Khalid has announced his next studio album, Everything is changing, last summer. For now, however, he seems content to take a step back, sounding like he’s singing and shrugging at the same time.
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