Chartbreaker: Khalid Reveals Why He Almost Scrapped His Breakout Hot 100 Hit 'Location'

BB5
Sami Drasin
Khalid photographed Feb. 8 at The Warwick in Los Angeles.

Chartbreaker is Billboard's new monthly series spotlighting an artist making their introduction to the charts.

Solitude is a comfort zone for Khalid. The 19-year-old, whose breakthrough single “Location” has become one of this year’s left-field hits and currently sits perched at No. 52 on the Hot 100, spent the majority of his life as an army brat: his mother, who sings in the United States Army Band, lugged him and his younger sister around the world, from his birthplace in Georgia to Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia, then to Germany for five years followed by New York City and, finally, his adopted hometown of El Paso.

It makes sense, then, that Khalid, who’s been compared to contemporaries like Bryson Tiller and Frank Ocean, operates better on his own, dependent on himself for long-term company as his cast of friends has mostly been a rotating door throughout the years.

“It was very difficult, but at the same time, I really feel like it allowed me to mature as a younger individual, because I just got so used to friendships,” says Khalid Robinson, seated in a booth at Los Angeles’ nightclub The Warwick. He’s in town to play for a sold-out Grammy-week show at The Roxy that counts Hollywood attendees like Chloe Grace Moretz and Hailey Baldwin in the tightly packed crowd.

It doesn’t seem like he has a shortage of friends these days. “With the music, a lot of those people have tried to come back, and it's a lot harder to trust them. Like, you left me when I was done and you come back when I'm up. That's not good. But it's a learning experience.”

Growing up fast lends an air of sage perspicuity to his debut album American Teen, out Mar. 3 on RCA Records. He sings in a honeyed texture over R&B-inflected pop arrangements, many recorded in a first-take rush, and incorporating the Soundcloud tracks that have accrued millions of clicks online since he started posting them a year ago. But there’s also a teenaged earnestness to his music. Khalid is frank and forward, as if he’s having a conversation with the listener directly.

Standout “8TEEN,” inspired by a friend’s experience, still feels personal: “Damn my car still smells like marijuana / My mom is gonna kill me / Traffic’s backed up from corner to corner so I guess I hit the highway / Shake away all those stress of my shoulders, gonna have a good day / Because I’m 18 and I still live with my parents, and they’re not like yours / Yeah yours are more understanding.”

Khalid’s music struck a chord with one famous teen in particular: Kylie Jenner, who’s posted numerous videos to her Snapchat lip-synching to “Location” and “Saved” throughout 2016. “She played it so frequently that I was like, whoa, she really likes the song,” he says. “It wasn't just one song she heard and played it once. That was super special.” And as omnipresent as “Location” is starting to become—it has more than 40 million listens on Spotify and almost 15 million on Soundcloud—it almost didn’t happen. “I almost didn't record it because literally I was so tired after the studio session that I was like no, I'm going to give up, but I was like I gotta finish writing this,” he says. “It's kind of insane to think about.”

For Khalid, much of the writing and recordings took place in El Paso, where he moved last year for his senior year of high school. He spent much of his time conceptualizing song ideas when he was most alone—“If we're being realistic, a lot of the songs on my album I wrote in the shower, it’s my happy place”—including his first-ever song, “Saved.”

“I remember one time I was thinking, I really have plans to do this for a living, and I just need to find a way to start,” he says. “I had met these guys I had went to school with. One guy had played the guitar and he tells me, yeah, we can do a song at my house. Literally the next day, I sat in the shower until it was finished, went over to his house, recorded it in one take, didn't want to listen to it. I was like I might as well upload it and see what happens. Put it on Soundcloud, and that was pretty much the start.”

Though he’s relatively new to writing and recording music, it’s been embedded in him for years. His father passed away when he was in the third grade, leaving his mom to help develop his ear. In Germany, they would listen to India.Arie, Musiq Soulchild and Bill Withers on the way to school, and by the eighth grade, he decided he wanted to become a music teacher. He sang in choirs, and his first solo was taking lead on Etta James’ “At Last” in his freshman year. But an audition for a school competition called “Broadway Idol” shifted his focus away from singing in an ensemble.

“This one teacher I had told me that my voice wasn't really the one for choir music,” he says. “I sang the song, and she cries … and I don't get picked. I was curious, like, you cried, why didn't you pick it? She was like, ‘Your song is too sad.’ How can a song be too sad?

“Things like that crafted me throughout high school,” he continues, “and eventually I was like, I'm over this choir shit. If people are telling me I'm not singing the right way and that my songs are too sad, I'm going to sing them the way I want to, and I'm going to sing my sad-ass songs and someone's going to like that shit.”

Moving to El Paso helped center Khalid, and encouraged him to articulate his experiences and emotions through songwriting. “The love that I got was outstanding -- it really felt like a home,” he says. When he signed to RCA to record American Teen, he moved to his current home of Los Angeles, where he lives on his own in Studio City; it was the move that convinced him that El Paso would always be where he felt most comfortable. “It hurt me,” he continues. “If it didn't hurt me, that wouldn't have been my home.”

With American Teen poised to make him one of 2017’s breakout stars, Khalid is finding himself with less alone time than ever. And while he does consider life as “lonely” in Los Angeles, he’s anticipating that his perspective will make others feel less alone.

“There's a lot of people who will say they look up to me, which is cool, because it's so early on,” says Khalid. “But I feel like I'm just the voice of a human. I make mistakes and I will make mistakes in the future. I would classify myself as an individual. That's what I try to stay true with -- being myself, 100 percent.”

Watch Khalid talk about growing up in Germany, not being athletic and why his mom is his biggest musical inspiration:

 

A portion of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Billboard.