Arts & Life

Production impresses in Khalid’s ‘Scenic Drive,’ but lyrics fall short

Jan. 20, 2022, 9:14 p.m.

American singer-songwriter Donnel Robinson, better known by his stage-name Khalid, released his first mixtape, “Scenic Drive,” on Dec. 3. The nine-track project is classic Khalid: odes to heartbreak, love and enjoying life — topics anyone can relate to.

In “Scenic Drive,” Khalid departs from the sounds that launched his rise in the industry, moving beyond his typical inclusion of light pop that grounded his hit debut album “American Teen.” Instead, Khalid mixes soul with R&B for a more serious, thoughtful mixtape. Despite the change in genre, the production remains top-notch and is a redeeming element on the mixtape.

But the positives end there. Whereas on hit singles “Location,” “Young Dumb & Broke” and “Talk,” Khalid was able to showcase his songwriting — his ability to write unforgettable lyrics and make universal topics seem unique and honest — the lyrics on his latest project fall flat. Still, “Scenic Drive” showcases both personal and musical growth in its production. 

The project begins with “Intro feat. Alicia Keys.” It lacks singing or full verses and instead relies on production to convey the atmosphere of a car drive. The first thing the listener hears is car doors closing followed by static and a radio flipping through channels. Khalid’s hit songs “Talk” and “Location” play quickly on the radio. As the car drives off, singer Alicia Keys tells the listener to “sit back, relax and enjoy the ride” before beautiful harmonies draw the song to a close, mimicking turning on the radio in a car ride.

The next two songs share the same impressive production. “Present,” a song about Khalid’s dedication to his partner, features guitar licks and layered background vocals, contributing to one of the most addictive, feel-good songs on the tracklist. “Backseat” takes a more laid-back approach to its production. The backing instrumental drifts in and out before gliding into the chorus just as Khalid slows down his delivery for maximum heartbreak. 

“Retrograde feat. 6LACK & Lucky Daye” is one of the more notable songs of the mixtape, relying on both its lyrics and production to elevate the track. Gritty electric guitars and a thumping production contribute to the despair of heartbreak. Khalid also reveals his vulnerabilities about how fame makes finding the right person difficult. The raw honesty is impressive (“My personal and business lives are separate / They’re only f**kin’ with you for your benefits”) and brings newfound depth to this project. 6LACK and Lucky Daye add variety and liveliness in an otherwise slow, melancholy song. 

The relaxed tempo of “Retrograde” is followed by “Brand New feat. QUIN.” QUIN’s voice helps edge the song toward sultry and coy. QUIN’s light falsetto flies high, complimenting Khalid’s lower register especially when they have a back-and-forth in the chorus. Their voices harmoniously blend as the instrumental cuts out in the outro. 

Heartbroken Khalid makes a return in “All I Feel is Rain feat. JID” as he sings about a partner who lies to him, ruining his trust in them. JID’s fast-paced delivery provides a balanced contrast with Khalid’s slow crooning. “Voicemail feat. Kiana Ledé” highlights the levity of Ledé’s voice and adds groove and funk to the project. “Open feat. Majid Jorda” was the first mediocre song. All the qualifications were there: playful production, a balanced duet and a catchy chorus, but it failed to have the energy of the faster songs or the emotional quality of the slower ones. 

Finally, the mixtape closes with one of the best songs on the mixtape: “Scenic Drive feat. Smino and Ari Lennox.” The chorus includes Khalid’s playful delivery and his famed falsetto, worthy of playing on loop for hours. The production is fantastic. Khalid’s layered vocals and Lennox’s high and sweet ad-libs reach unprecedented highs in the background, steadied by a bass-heavy production.

Unfortunately, Khalid’s songwriting falls short in this project. The lyrics are delivered in his usual simple and straightforward manner but lack the honesty that helped teenagers relate and fiercely love his debut album “American Teen.” There are no lyrics that feel uniquely him outside of “Retrograde,” nor did I come away remembering any lyrics despite multiple listens. Unrequited love, fond memories with his partner and despair are common topics, but Khalid’s writing doesn’t make the rehashed topics new or fresh. Instead, most of the lyrics feel bland, impersonal and conventional.

Still, “Scenic Drive” is a wonderful collection of songs. Khalid’s production remains consistent throughout and his impressive vocal range achieves the comforting atmosphere promised by the title and cover art. Though this project isn’t one of my favorites, it’s still a solid choice to listen to. This mixtape feels exactly like a late-night drive — a balm to soothe loneliness and stress.

Favorite songs: “Retrograde,” “Brand New,” “Voicemail” and “Scenic Drive”

Mixtape score: ⅘ stars.

Kate Phan is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Winter Journalism Workshop.

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