It's just gone midday on a Monday, and I'm somewhere in the depths of the BBC's looming central London headquarters with R&B newcomer Khalid. I'm watching him tuck into a plate of chicken, sipping from a bottle of Sprite that he's brought over from the US especially because it tastes so different in the UK—"less sugar, in all honesty." He's having one of those days where he's running all about town, still riding the wave of success that crashed in from the release of his rich, gorgeous and personal debut album, American Teen. As an understatement, it's been a busy year. Since "Location" blew up (with help from Kylie Jenner and Snapchat), the 19-year-old from El Paso, Texas has gone platinum, been nominated for a BET Award, featured alongside Future on a cut from Calvin Harris' Funk Wav Bounce Vol 1 record and signed up to tour Europe with fellow teen game-changer Lorde. Now he's in the UK to wake audiences here up to his brand of beautiful and intelligent R&B.
When we meet, Khalid arrives in red-and-navy stripes with his "entourage"—a manager-cum-older sister-cum-best friend, a label rep, his PR, his best mate and his band—settling in to eat a Nando's before he gets down to the business of singing. He goes deep on the virtues of "dark meat" (wings, thighs) vs "white meat" (breast) and how he needs the juice and the flavor of dark meat. Khalid seems to take on the role of indulged younger brother within his team, all of them women—but when he gets in the booth with his band, all young, cool-looking musicians, he comes into his own. He's playful and entertaining, goofing off with his crew, but in charge, arranging them as he goes. With two takes each, of "Location" and a cover of Frank Ocean's "Lost," we're off into a car on the way to east London where Khalid's due to play an Apple Music event on a brightly decorated, "industrial-chic" rooftop carpeted with fake grass, where the air is constantly scented like sticky rum.
The sense you get from spending time with Khalid in person is that of a young man full of incredible artistry and potential, but also one wholly confident in his character, willing to be open to everything and to pay forward his blessings. Watching footage back later from the show, you can practically feel the warmth radiating from the crowd in his direction. In the car and on the roof we talked about music and youth and love. And I leave (after he soundchecks "8TEEN," my personal favorite from the album) feeling the way I imagine it feels after an expensive holistic retreat holiday—lighter, with the sense that someone's pummelled out the knots in my back muscles and doused in an infectiously positive outlook on life.
Noisey: Hi Khalid, looking back on that Kyle Snapchat moment, how do you make sense of the way things accelerated after that point?
Khalid: I wasn't prepared and I was very overwhelmed. I had to become so dependent on me, I had to have all my shit together. And it was hard! I'm lazy as shit! But something kicked into me like "you can be lazy to an extent" but when it comes to your job catch that flight, go to this place, perform this way and never half-ass. Everything has been so rapid but I love separating it into moments. This is what I'm focusing on right now, I'm gonna tackle this goal, okay on to the next one. It's fun, it's almost like a game.
"Another Sad Love Song" opens with you saying you're not good with your emotions, but your record sounds so open. Do you think it's easier to be vulnerable as an artist than IRL as a man?
I feel like me saying "I'm not the best at showing my emotions" is me being naive within the song. The next line is "you cut me deep and left me wide open." Like "I'm not good at this shit… but you fucked up my heart!" It's me talking about how I used to be, how I thought I wasn't good at expressing my emotions, but I hadn't tried to. It took me a while to become expressive with my emotions, but I became much more so when I started writing my emotions out. I kept everything in because I thought no one was going to care. But once I threw that out and thought "I care about myself" it changed everything. I'm just so glad I'm learning how to express my emotions, because once you're in touch with them it does so much for you. You're able to let all that energy out and focus on the good.
The other big theme that hits home for me is a nostalgia for lost love.
I have songs where I literally say "I'm a hopeless romantic", but now after the album, it's more that I'm giving love than searching, because I have a lot of love and I don't feel I have to go out to find love from someone else. I don't have to ask for someone to love me, because I love me. I'm constantly finding love not only on a one to one basis but within my friendships. And that's the best.
Why did you think it was important to highlight 18 as such a crucial age, over, say 16 or 13?
I think society has a lot of influence on how we view that age. In certain households, 18 is the age that you gotta get out and I feel like that's so young. I'm only 19, and at 18 I felt so immature, I was not ready. Some parts of me wishes that age was pushed back. It's the graduating process that makes 18 feel like an intense year. But it's also a fun year. It's one of the best years I've ever had in my life. I feel like 18 and 21 are the years. 21 is when you can buy a drink.
We're basically done with it all at 18, here. We can have sex from 16, and drink from 18.
Yeah, 18 is the age you get everything! But 21 is another tipping point for us. But I'm never gonna write a song called "21" because 21 is never gonna be as fun as 18.
But you don't know that—you haven't got there yet!
Haha, well 18 was when my career got started so I'm always gonna have associations with that age. Plus it's cool when people listen to your shit and then they're like "damn you're only 18 years old?" [smirks] Yeah. I am 18.
What does being a teen in America feel like right now?
I feel like a lot of us are discouraged with the decisions that have been made, but we have the ability to change that in the future. We didn't realize it this one time and a decision was made that affected all of us, not only just the youth. Even older people didn't take it as seriously as they should've. A lot of people are finding out who they are and that's very positive. I feel like if we can just get to that final stage of "I can move this mountain if I want to move it," then things would be way better.
Engagement is key. The youth are learning how to be way more involved so that another decision like that won't happen in the near future. And if that's how things are, imagine 20 years from now. Everything will be controlled by younger people because they realised that they can do it. I mean, if you get told for so long you don't have power, you start to believe it, but the reality is that it's all bullshit.
Have your teenage years been how you imagined them when you were a child?
When I was growing up, you watch movies and kinda think, 'there's one way to be a teenager, there's one type of high school.' My high school was in a small town, so you did have your jocks, your popular kids, your cheerleaders but the people who excelled the most were not the athletes. At my school the theatre kids and the musicians were the cool kids, they were who everyone wanted to be around, because they had their own form of self-expression. I was literally a theatre kid and I won Prom Prince in my junior year. And then I was the new kid when I moved to El Paso, Texas and I won Prom King.
Such a big part of adolescence is about not wanting to stand out, wanting to be accepted. Maybe that's why your school's "cool kids" pecking order feels like an anomaly.
A lot of teenagers are very misled by what they consume. In America I feel like a lot of kids are scared to be involved in music in high school because they have this perception, from what they consume, that musicians are nerds. Music education is diminishing. It's not as popular as it was before because of what people perceive and I hope that changes. I wanna be part of that change, I wanna go back to my hometown and get involved with schools and music education. I wanna give back to kids and let them know that this is necessary, and it can help. Once you have art in your life it's a different type of life.
It feels similar here: as though sports is prioritised in a bid to keep kids physically healthy, without accounting for how the arts could benefit their mental health or wellbeing too.
Yes definitely! And that's because of what we perceive and they way that we consume. We perceive at an early age that sports is the coolest thing to do. But why wasn't music perceived that way? Or art? Because once you get involved, you realise "oh this is the coolest thing ever."
Finally, do you still feel as proud to be an American teen now as when you wrote that line?
The crazy thing about that line is… I wrote it before the election and it was received harshly because it came out after the election. I was discouraged but then I asked myself, 'what did I mean when I said it?' If I wasn't American I wouldn't be me. Just like if you weren't from the UK you wouldn't be you. There's many parts of me: I'm an African-American teen, I'm a military kid, I'm a music kid; there's all these different things about myself that I'm proud of. So yeah, I'm proud to be an American… to an extent. America is going through it, but it definitely won't be going through it for too long. I'm probably not as proud now as I was when I wrote it - when I wrote it I was so proud! We had Obama, we were good! And then everything happened and I questioned if I should put the song out. And the answer was yes. I'm still gonna put that song out because I'm still proud to be me.
You can find Grace on Twitter.
(All photography by Jordan Curtis Hughes)