Kylie Jenner's Snapchat account peddles in many things: pool-side selfies revealing her arched derriere in fishnet swimsuits, fitness teas, lipgloss, Tyga's relevancy. With the most eyeballs of anyone on Snapchat, Jenner's video snippets yield a kind of unequaled viral exposure, particularly for the musicians whose songs often find their way into the background. "I don't know her [personally], but if I did I'd thank her" 18-year old Khalid Robinson says as he recounts the momentous day when Jenner posted a three-second snap while dancing to his single "Location." In between sips of Mexican Coke in a dark corner of one of El Paso, Texas's most iconic dive bars, Khalid talks about the whirlwind that followed with an earnest appreciation and an inkling of disbelief. "That was when I realized 'Oh it's not just my friends [listening].'"
But even with over 30 million listens on Spotify, co-signs from Zayn Malik and Diddy, countless blurbs and "who to watch" mentions, Khalid's place as a household name is far from cemented. He knows this, but more importantly, he knows 2017 could be his year. With a 21-date North American tour just days away, and his debut album American Teen dropping on March 3 with RCA, the next few months are his audition to the world, his chance to take his place in the annals of music history or fade out. But if all an up-and-coming artist can hope for is a foot in the door, his first single and subsequent output are a veritable battering-ram through said door.
Released in May, "Location" is a sultry call for personal connection in a digital, over-stimulated world. Communication is the central theme of the song, and though millennial-friendly technology is used to arrive at the human interaction, the message wouldn't be lost on your grandfather who thinks "location sharing" is leaving a note with his secretary. Its sparse production—by Syk Sense, Tunji Ige, and Smash David—allows Khalid's deceptively weathered voice to shine with the distress of someone far beyond his 18 years. And his disconsolate croon immediately sets him apart.
"Being signed to a label and competing with various artists was intimidating to me at first," Khalid tells me about the possibility of being lumped in with the deluge of so-called "alt-R&B" and "nu-soul" singers teetering at the edge of oversaturation. On "Coaster," his soulful warble is accompanied by a simple and somber piano, while on "Reasons," the UK garage and deep house vibe intermingles with a slow-burning trap beat. Experimental but with consideration for his audience, he walks a fine line between familiarity and the unexplored.
"I feel like music as a whole now is all about experimentation," he says as he describes his influences, which lean as much toward the indie rock of acts Father John Misty as the similarly fragile electro-R&B of Sampha or James Blake. "Back then the lines were the lines. The genre didn't cross the genre. If you were an R&B singer you sang like an R&B singer. If you were country singer, you sang like a country singer… People listen to Beach House and Travis Scott and Kanye and Fleet Foxes."
It's easy to forget Khalid is still three years away from having his first legal drink. He's dressed head to toe in Versace, a sign of his early success, but is unwaveringly demure in his manner. Articulate and well-traveled, he carries himself with certainty and poise, and he is relentlessly polite. Often throughout our conversations I have to remind myself of his age: Only 14 when Frank Ocean's Channel Orange was released, he is part of a generation who grew up witnessing a redefinition of black masculinity. Khalid's hunger for emotional transparency and vulnerability has its roots in this music, and he even pays tribute with an intoxicating cover of Ocean's "Lost."
Perhaps just as influential in who he has become is his semi-nomadic life. "He was in my stomach [when] I was in the studio in Atlanta." Khalid's mother Linda Wolfe says, describing her own career trying to make it in music in "the era of En Vogue and SWV." When Khalid was born, she shifted her focus to raising him. An assignment in Germany as a singer for the Army took her and young Khalid overseas for many of his formative years, where he immersed himself in music and theater. "That's when I found out he had a gift. He had to be maybe ten," she adds as she tells me about how important it was for her to provide Khalid with an outlet for self-expression.
After Germany and a four-year Army move to New York, Khalid moved to El Paso for his senior year in high school. "I was really nervous to move to El Paso," he says. "I just felt like everywhere that I moved I didn't have a sense of fitting in." But not fitting in is something El Paso revels in.
Sitting at the edge of Texas with a mostly Latino population, El Paso suffers from a perpetual identity crisis. Not generally considered Texas by other Texans, and most certainly not Mexico or New Mexico, the border community has developed its own sense of place amid its sprawling growth; Khalid was an outsider coming of age in an outsider city. "When I moved to El Paso that's when I accepted the fact that 'oh shit I don't have to fit in. This is who I am as an individual' I found myself as an artist in El Paso."
Khalid relishes every opportunity to name-drop and promote his adopted home, filming his videos there and using imagery of the singular border region during performances. "If I didn't move to Americas [high school in El Paso] I probably wouldn't be in the position that I am right now," he tells me about his alma mater. In October, he attended the homecoming game, and was serenaded by a full stadium to "Location." He muses, a bit in awe, "I was so scared to move here, and now they accepted me as their own."
"I feel like we as people get off and get hyped off people saying we can't do something. You can't tell me what I can and can't do."
The love wasn't instantaneous, though. His senior year, Khalid recorded a song he'd written, "Saved," at the urging of a friend. People around school seemed to like it, and it received 4,000 plays on Soundcloud. "Then the most popular kid in my school turned around and said 'That song sucks. That song's terrible,'" Khalid recalls. "There were Snapchats of him saying that. Everybody sent it to me. I was like, 'OK, I'm going to release another one… you said I suck; I'm going to prove I don't suck.' I feel like we as people get off and get hyped off people saying we can't do something. You can't tell me what I can and can't do. Watch me do shit."
He's lived up to that vow, and he's come a very long way since his first performance in El Paso a little over a year ago. "I wasn't who I am today." Khalid laments. "I had my phone out, and I told people I might forget the words of the song." Though judging from the fact that the packed room cleared after his performance, he might just be exhibiting an earnest humility, an important trait in someone who's about to see his fan base grow exponentially.
Not long after our meeting in El Paso, I joined Khalid at his Los Angeles rehearsal space, a few days before the Location Tour kicked off. Though his anxiety was palpable, he was optimistic: "I'm kind of nervous but this is my first tour so it makes sense for me to be nervous. I'm just gonna put my all into everything that I do especially practicing because I don't want to get on stage and make a fool of myself."
He was a little stiff and reserved as he and his band began a rundown of their setlist, but as he became unencumbered, his natural talent took over. He took command of his performance, and by the time they got to his nu-disco-tinged "Hopeless," he sounded better than on the record—leaving me and many in the room with goosebumps.
But a rehearsal space in West Hollywood and 21 nearly sold-out venues across North America are very different things. Considering that his first show on this tour was only be his fourth live performance as singer/songwriter "Khalid," it was a natural concern for many if the inexperienced performer would have trouble with the variables involved in touring. "I might mess up on a couple of notes 'cause I'm nervous, but this is me," he said as he brushed those worries away. "This is who I am."
Fans already seem prepared to embrace that persona. In the days leading up to the tour, Khalid was busy DMing fans who couldn't find tickets to his sold-out shows, getting them in a priority. He described waiting outside a venue to meet fans from Twitter, and another time he took a group out to dinner when they spotted him on the London streets. "We talked about music for hours," he recalled enthusiastically.
It's been a dramatic rise. But what would happen if this all suddenly went away? Khalid doesn't seem frightened by the prospect of a life outside of the limelight, and he muses on the possibility with his characteristic poise: "If I wasn't a recording artist I'd be a music teacher. Not to be narcissistic but I feel like I was destined to be a musician." But with "Location" gaining traction every day via milestones like beating out Gucci Mane and Drake on Hot 97's "Battle of the Beats" and entering the Billboard R&B top ten, and with Khalid making steps like debuting records on Beats 1 with Zane Lowe, it seems very unlikely anyone will be enrolling in Mr. Robinson's class any time soon.
Lead photo by Renzo Photo, courtesy of RCA Records
Other photos by the author
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl in El Paso and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.