In the two years since Khalid‘s American Teen launched him from El Paso obscurity to Top 40 prodigy, he’s toured the world, earned a VMA and five Grammy nominations, dropped his Suncity EP, and lent his leathery voice to a handful of A-list collaborations. He’s also had two birthdays, meaning the “young, dumb, and broke” kid we met a few years ago — the one who landed a smash with the world’s sexiest song about dropping a pin — isn’t really a kid anymore. Not that that bothers him.
“I know for a fact I’m gonna be young forever, if I just keep the charisma and the energy I have now,” Khalid told MTV News. “I love growing up, through. I can’t wait to see where I’m at 25 and what type of music I’m making and where else I’m going to adventure. I’m gonna be young forever, even if — what’s an old age? I’m gonna say 60 — even if I’m 60, I’ll still have a little pep in my step.”
That easy, breezy attitude is all over Khalid’s sophomore album, Free Spirit, which arrived on Friday (April 5), but so is the Texas native’s melancholy musings on millennial love. On Free Spirit, he tests the limits of the sound he perfected on American Teen, cruises outside of his comfort zone, and even extends his creativity to other media — the album is accompanied by a short film of the same name that Khalid stars in. He’ll also embark on a solo tour this summer that has him headlining arenas for the very first time. But before all that, the 21-year-old called up MTV News to catch us up on how he’s feeling heading into his second album era and to explain why he doesn’t actually feel like a free spirit… yet.
MTV News: You’ve kept yourself busy since American Teen. How did you find time to make this album on top of everything else?
Khalid: This album has actually taken me over a year to finish. I started at the start of 2018 and over the course of going on tour, you get so inspired, you see the world, and different noises hit your ear. Even walking down the street and hearing the wind brush upon your face, you just want to write a song. I feel like I had so many collabs out last year, it was ridiculous. Those gave me more time to focus on myself and where I wanted to go with music. It’s my favorite project — out of Suncity and American Teen, Free Spirit takes the cake.
MTV News: On Suncity, no two songs sounded the same. Will Free Spirit be similarly eclectic, or is there some kind of cohesiveness to it that you can define?
Khalid: Free Spirit is that on steroids. Every song on the album has its own world and takes you so many different places. I love that I get to experiment — I feel like that’s what a project is for: to take risks and create sounds that you would’ve never imagined doing two years ago.
MTV News: You wrote a lot of American Teen when you were still in high school. How has your writing changed since then?
Khalid: With American Teen, there’s this innocence behind it because I didn’t really know what the world consisted of. I hadn’t seen the whole world. I didn’t talk to as many people as I talk to now and understood them. It really opened the door to my level of creativity where I’m like, yo, making music should always be fun. So I started writing a lot more, I started improving, and going through life and building more experiences. I grew up, and getting thrown into a world that you know nothing about — the music industry — straight out of high school… You just age. It’s not that growing up is a bad thing. I’m so glad I matured, because I’m able to tap into a level of vulnerability that I probably wouldn’t have achieved two years ago.
MTV News: You said there was an innocence on American Teen — is there part of you that feels jaded by everything that’s come after that?
Khalid: I don’t feel like I’ll ever allow myself to become jaded because of the energy that I surround myself with. My friends and my team and my family, we all find ways to continue to have fun. The moment this isn’t fun for me, that’s the moment I don’t want to do it. I don’t understand why I would want to continue doing something that doesn’t put a smile on my face every time I walk on the stage. I don’t know how I could ever feel jaded if I feel that every single day of my life.
MTV News: Going back to Free Spirit, you said you experimented a lot with this one. What tracks pushed you out of your comfort zone the most?
Khalid: Definitely one that’s very special to me, it’s called “Hundred.” I took a lot of risks, and even the way that you hear my voice, it’s a different side of me. That song took me so long to finish writing because I wanted to make sure it was true to myself. That’s why it became one of my favorites, because I think about how hard it was to finish. When it was over, it was this relief off my shoulders. But at the same time, I got so excited because I’m like, wow, the world gets to hear this.
MTV News: What’s that one about?
Khalid: There’s a line in the chorus: “If the world keeps spinning, the sun won’t shine on my face / I’ma keep it moving, got a hundred things I gotta do today.” I feel like that was my life. The world could’ve ended right behind me — explosions, crashes, all of that — and I was so locked into my job that I’m like, none of this would even bother me, and I’m gonna get it done because that’s just how motivated I was. It’s a song for motivation. I’m like, “These days keep going, hopefully I stay busy, I’d rather be busy than free all the time.” When you’re free, that’s when you get bored easily. I hate being bored.
MTV News: So you hate being free, but the album is called Free Spirit. Where did that name come from?
Khalid: Free Spirit came to me when I performed at Red Rocks in Colorado. I felt like a free spirit that whole show. Maybe I was loopy because of the elevation, I don’t know, but it was so much fun. And it was crazy because the shirt that I was wearing said “free spirit” on it, and that’s exactly how I felt. Before I walked onstage, I did this vocal melody and I labeled it “free spirit.” That was around May 2018. I didn’t put any words to it until February 2019. It’s the last song that I wrote, and it’s a song that has impacted me so much because it was so fitting for the path of life that I’m on. I love the idea of becoming a free spirit, but I acknowledge the fact that I’m not one now, which allows me to be excited to be one in the future. I’m all for finding out.
MTV News: Why don’t you think you’re there yet?
Khalid: I don’t feel like I’m a free spirit because honestly, I have so many things that constrict me. I have a job, I have obligations, I have bills, I have a car now, I got a house, I got taxes. Where did taxes come from?! I didn’t have taxes when I wrote American Teen, I’ll tell you that! I feel like for me to completely be free, nothing should constrict me, mentally or physically. I don’t feel that now, but hopefully I’ll feel that temporarily when I take a six-month vacation and find myself in the middle of a forest in Brazil or something. But free right now? I am not free.
MTV News: I feel like that “free spirit” shirt should become part of your merch line.
Khalid: I wish! Honestly, I can’t find it in my closet at all; I have a shit ton of clothes. But that feeling at Red Rocks, wearing that shirt… That’s how this album feels to me.
MTV News: Where did the idea for a Free Spirit short film come from?
Khalid: You ever put your favorite album on, you go on a drive, you look out your window, and you’re like, wow, life feels like a movie? That’s how I felt when I listened to Free Spirit. I was like, if I keep closing my eyes and I see the movie over and over again, then I need to make one. It was definitely an uncomfortable process at first, but I’m so glad for it to come out into the world.
MTV News: I’m just excited to see you act!
Khalid: Oh my god, it’s terrible. I’m my own biggest critic; I judge myself so heavily. It’s so funny to see myself acting because my friends all think I’m such a character anyway, so we literally just watch it and laugh. I can’t say it’s terrible, but it’s funny. I definitely think I’m so funny in this film.