Khalid Robinson is zigzagging through galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when a disturbing canvas stops him in his tracks. It depicts a naked man with a vertical gash in his torso, through which a second naked man, covered in blood, drifts outward. The painting, by the surrealist Victor Brauner, is titled "Suicide at Dawn". "It's from 1930!" Khalid says incredulously, scanning the wall text. "That's crazy to me, to think about how long people have been making art about pain, about love — about all the things we're still making art about." He lingers a moment, then starts moving again. "I've written songs about friends who dealt with suicidal thoughts," he says, following a train of thought. "I've never felt that way myself, exactly, but I've felt close. Like, I've wanted to disappear."
Khalid is a 19-year-old pop prodigy with a lovely, leathery voice and a knack for big, breezy singsongs. His debut album, American Teen, came out a few months ago, and although it pulses with euphoric dance beats, Eighties synths and tales of marijuana- and booze-fuelled high school raging, melancholy is never far away, either. The album is full of fragile relationships — friends having a blast only to grow apart; lovers yearning for one another only to get caught up in passive-aggressive mind games. Technology references — cellphone photo albums, ride-share apps, GPS pins — pop up constantly, sometimes enabling connections, sometimes crippling them. American Teen debuted at Number Nine in the U.S. and is already certified gold. Khalid has appeared on tracks with Kendrick Lamar and Future, and he's befriended Kylie Jenner, who gave his breakout hit, "Location", a crucial boost when she played it on her Snapchat. In September he'll hit the road with Lorde, who called Khalid's "Young, Dumb and Broke" "fucking gorgeous", and whose music has a similarly potent combination of zoomed-in specificity and generational sweep. ("I love her," Khalid says of Lorde.)
Khalid is new to Los Angeles, but he's already come to see the art at LACMA "a couple times", posting shots of himself among the sculptures and paintings on his Instagram. He rents an apartment in Studio City, in the Valley. A few months ago, he bought himself a pre-owned BMW 428i droptop in El Paso, Texas, where he attended high school his senior year, and drove west to be closer to the music industry. Before El Paso, he lived in Carthage, New York, a small town upstate; before that, he lived in Heidelberg, Germany; Georgia; and Kentucky: He was an Army brat, and all the moving left a mark on him.
Today, he keeps the walls bare in his apartment, because, he says, "I get attached to things like that, and if I get attached, I won't want to leave." At the same time, he adds a moment later, he can't sit still anywhere for long: "I always get restless and sad if I stay in one place — like, 'I wanna see something else.'" I tell him that he seemingly just contradicted himself, and he nods. "Moving makes me sad and excited at the same time — it's a mind-fuck."
When Khalid was about seven, his life veered into tragedy. His parents separated when he was "very young", he says, and when he was in second grade his father was killed: "He got hit by a car — drunk driver, didn't stop." By that point, Khalid was living in Germany with his mother, Linda, who recently retired as a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army. "I was very upset, mad — the stages of grief," he says. "That's probably why I matured a lot faster than a lot of people my age, because I already lost something superclose to me." Beyond that, he felt strains from the unsettled life of "a military child, where you're constantly moving and you don't really have any form of stability".
Khalid's mother performed with a U.S. Army band and chorus, and he grew up duetting with her at home. At school he performed in musicals — "I was Cornelius in Hello, Dolly; Seaweed in Hairspray" — and at home he studied YouTube clips of virtuoso singers like Andrea Bocelli, the pop-opera don. "I kind of self-taught myself, like, let me watch other singers, picking up on accents and how they portray their emotions." His list of favourite musicians includes Fleetwood Mac (he's called "Dreams" one of his all-time jams), Adele, Bill Withers, Aaliyah and Father John Misty. "I don't think of genre when I create," he says. "I just wanna make shit that sounds good in my car."
After Germany, he moved to upstate New York, where "I was sad. I didn't feel like I had a home there." His interest in performing arts granted him a degree of popularity at school, but also made him a target. "My mum raised a self-aware kid," he says. "I wasn't like the typical alpha male. I wasn't afraid to sing, you know? I wasn't afraid to be in musicals. Kids are shitty. I got joked on. You had people saying I was stupid, that I was lame, that I was feminine, this and that." He took that negative energy and turned it into motivation: "I was like, 'OK, but I'm still gonna be successful, and you're not.'"
Khalid once thought he'd become a music teacher, but during his senior year in El Paso he began writing and recording his own songs to deal with the loneliness of being in a new town and not knowing anyone. His experience throughout school had had its rough patches — "people picking on you, calling you fat, talking shit about you" — but songwriting helped him through. "I had to learn to love myself," he says.
Khalid started posting his songs to SoundCloud, building a following among his classmates. "I put out this voice memo for a song called 'Would You' that I never finished, and the popular guy in school said it sucked — he said it on his Snapchat, out of jealousy, because I was a new kid. I was like, 'OK, if you think that sucks, I'll make another one to show you how much I suck. Which I obviously don't.'"
School was rough for Khalid — "people calling you fat, talking shit" — but songwriting helped him through.
Khalid scored a manager and finagled a connection to the producer Syk Sense, who has credits on songs by Drake and Travis Scott, and who invited Khalid to come work with him in an Atlanta studio. Khalid's "Location" — a catchy, slow-stirred ode to moving past the digital world toward an IRL hookup — grew out of those sessions, which later moved to El Paso. Today, the song is a hit, certified double-platinum, but when Khalid first recorded it, his primary ambition was making sure he posted it to SoundCloud in time for high school prom, "because I wanted to win prom king", he explains. To his delight, it worked: "I wanted to kind of beat the odds, where everyone thought it was gonna be a football player."
But his relationship to his newfound public adoration is complicated. He says he feels a powerful debt to his fans — that he cried at an El Paso mall when, run ragged by work and jet lag, he had to end a CD signing early, even though people were still waiting in line. That sense of obligation isn't without limits, though. As we're leaving LACMA, a young couple stop him for a picture, asking if he is indeed Khalid and, in the process, pronouncing his name incorrectly. (For the record, it's "kuh-leed.") He is gracious nonetheless, gently correcting the couple and posing separately with each of them, but when we're in his car, he says, "You're not a real fan if you don't know how to say my name." He thinks about this, then shrugs. "It's not that deep. It's what we signed up for. We knew people were gonna not genuinely give a fuck about us and ask for photos anyway. So just take it. It might make their day, and that's what I want to do — help people."
American Teen is mostly about romantic ups and downs, but the album title is also political — a way to combat outmoded stereotypes about who is and who isn't properly American. "I'm an African-American man with an Afro, who isn't your typical athlete — who wasn't as masculine as other guys," Khalid says. "And now people are looking at me like, this is 'The American Teen.....' Especially with the election, having Trump as president, it's about pushing for 'OK, I can be black, you can be white, you can be Muslim, let's all be woke to the issues, let's all appreciate each other.'" (Khalid was raised Christian, but doesn't identify as being overwhelmingly religious.)
Khalid says he wants other misfits and outsiders to take solace in his example, in terms of both artistic and material success. He tells me he sees his pre-owned BMW as a steppingstone to another, fancier, "we-made-it car", and, down the line, to a "we-made-it house — but I want to buy it in El Paso, because I want kids to drive by and say, 'That's Khalid's house.' It'll inspire them. That's how dreamers are born."
We head north, into the Valley, where Khalid is due at a rehearsal space. In a few days he'll head out on a two-month headlining club tour, and he needs to practice with his live band and two backup dancers. En route to a dance studio to learn choreography, we pick up two of his old friends: Eric, whom he knows from Carthage, and Jerry, whom he knows from El Paso. He flew them out, and they've never met each other, which Khalid says is part of the fun: "It's like a social experiment."
Eric and Jerry will help out on the tour in ways that haven't quite been defined — "We'll do, like, the merch table and stuff," Jerry says. They're pals-turned-employees, which might get awkward, but Khalid seems comfortable with his place atop the command structure — as Eric and Jerry cram into the BMW's tiny back seat, I offer to move my passenger seat forward. "They're OK," Khalid says, answering for them. Later he sends Jerry to buy him bottled water from Starbucks and, after that, to go feed his parking meter.
The dance studio is on a busy boulevard. Khalid shakes hands with Tanisha, the choreographer, and stands between his dancers. Songs from American Teen blare, and he moves with an easygoing slinkiness. "Do three of these sways, then give me life on the fourth," Tanisha instructs him. "OK, I got life for you," Khalid replies, improvising a quick little double-kick. "You're giving me young James Brown!" she says, delighted.
Back in the BMW, Khalid cues up an unreleased song with the working title "Coast v1". "I did this last week," he says. It's built around a sparse banjo riff, and Khalid says he wrote the song with Father John Misty in mind. "If I were to have an idol in terms of songwriting, it would probably be him." The lyrics relate to what Khalid was talking about in front of the Brauner canvas earlier. The first verse begins with a metaphorical suicide — "I killed a man the other day/It was the man I knew the most" — and goes into an escape fantasy: "I left my pain behind/I'm on my way."
The song is gorgeous and sad, and the lyrics make it clear that, despite sudden success, Khalid still has some demons to tussle with. "I want a one-way ticket to Cabo," he sings, "so I can start over, alone on the coast." I tell him the track sounds great. He thanks me, then grins. "Who knows?" he says. "I might never put it out."
From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now.