Last spring, Khalid was an 18-year-old unsigned artist finishing high school in El Paso, Texas. He'd recorded a few tracks of minimalist R&B, full of spacious vibes and longing, uploaded them to Soundcloud and became a local hero – a change for an Army brat who'd grown up as a shy kid singing musical theater and opera. But when he moved to El Paso before his senior year, he began channeling his loneliness into his songs, working up melodies and lyrics on his iPhone, then putting them to music with friends. No studios – ideas for a track might be captured on a voice memo in the bathroom and recorded in someone's bedroom. And Khalid had no car, so once, to get to a session, he hit up Twitter. He recalls, "I put this tweet out: 'Can someone please come pick me up and take me to record at my friend's house?'"
The track that made sure he'd never be without a ride again was a swoony groover called "Location." "It was toward the end of my senior year," he says. "A lot of my classmates were like, 'When are we gonna get another song?' And I'm telling my manager, 'We gotta get this song out. Because I'm falling off, and prom is right around the corner.' "
"Location" blended old-school touches of organ and guitar in new-school ways, as Khalid pleaded with a girl to let him know when and where to come through. After Kylie Jenner Snapchatted a clip of herself listening to the song, his growing fame became more than local. Within a few months he'd signed to RCA, and a few months after that he was putting the finishing touches on his debut album, American Teen, a mix of slow-moving heartbreak and pop thrills, as if Drake had reworked Katy Perry's catalog as a soundtrack for late-night adventures.
Many of the songs – like "Saved," where Khalid pledges to keep a number stored until an ex finally misses him the way he misses her – revolve around that millennial essential: the phone. "Falling in love in high school and falling out of love – it's very digital," says Khalid. "I've had breakups where they've called me to tell me we were done, and I've gotten a lot of text messages from an old girlfriend letting me know how she felt about me after we had ended everything."
Growing up, Khalid Robinson's mom told him how
important music was. This was no artistic abstraction – she was in the Army,
and singing with the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus meant she could travel
the world performing rather than be deployed. "Music pretty much saved
her life, and saved my own life," he says. He cites his diverse influences: "Father John Misty, Brandy, Aaliyah, Bill Withers, Billie
Holiday." Until he got to El Paso, he thought he'd be a music teacher. But
in the past year and a half he's discovered something of his own: music full of
deep bottom and empty space that reassembles the past in the shape of the
future. "In a span of a couple of months I feel like I've found my voice,"
he says. "But who knows? The next album might be a different type of
voice. Art is fluid, and it travels. You have to let music take you where it
wants to take you. You can't necessarily be the controller."