Inside a trendy Fairfax District sneaker store on a busy afternoon, Khalid is scanning the room looking for a pair that catches his eye.
Two teenage girls, having recognized the buzzy singer, whisper among themselves before one stealthily pulls out her phone to snap a few pictures. They then hastily exit — giggling and their faces red.
Khalid didn’t notice the tiny commotion. He was too busy examining a rare pair of shoes that will set him back a couple hundred bucks. “I feel like I have way too many shoes. It’s probably a problem,” he laughs before buying two pairs.
The inability to shop unnoticed, for example is just one sign that the 19-year-old singer born Khalid Robinson is on the cusp of fame.
“I do get a little bit intimidated. I’m 19 and still trying to find myself,” he says, combing through a rack of clothes at another store. “At the same time, I'm trying to find myself in a public light … which is a little overwhelming.”
The buzz is due to his breakthrough single, “Location” — a soulful, guitar-kissed ode to technology’s role in coupledom that Robinson released before graduating high school.
Logging more than 17 million plays since appearing on Soundcloud last spring (and more on Spotify), the record led to a deal with Right Hand Music Group/RCA Records. It became a top 10 R&B hit and drummed up hype for his debut, “American Teen,” out today.
“American Teen” is driven by the (in)experience of youth. Songs focus on young love, angst and self-discovery.
“I wanted the album to kind of be a real representation of who I am as a person. A lot of the inspiration comes from all the artists that I grew up listening to, whether it's folk-based, R&B, soul, pop, all of that,” he said. “I really wanted it to be very broad and eclectic because that's who I am. It hits at a lot of different boundaries”
The album’s title is a nod to the universal expression of adolescence that he writes about, but today it has taken on a more political tone.
“A lot of people are [distancing] themselves from the term ‘American,’ especially because of someone who's not as qualified as they should be leading us,” he said.
“But I’m proud to be an American because I have a sense of individualism and I can live comfortably expressing myself. There's so many other countries that suppress creatives — especially black creatives [and] women creatives. I think over the next few years the youth will really understand that we have the ability to control a lot more things than we think we can.”
Robinson’s mother, his biggest musical inspiration, sings with the the U.S. Army chorus. It wasn’t her dream, but it kept her with her two kids and away from war (“She pretty much risked everything,” he said). It also meant the family regularly moved across the country, and even to Germany for six years.
He started writing to channel his feelings regarding the constant shuffling. He took a cue from his mother and gravitated toward singing, even competing with his high school choir and studying musical theater.
“I felt a sense of loneliness. You move so much and you meet so many different people, you kind of meet the same people, in a sense,” Robinson said. “You build this relationship for a certain amount of years that you share with people and then boom, it's gone.”
An ordered transfer to El Paso toward the end of high school hit the hardest.
“It kind of hurt me a little bit,” he admitted. “So I just turned all the negativity into a creative.”
It was a best friend in El Paso who persuaded him to try recording. “I guess I was kind of nervous and shy about all of that,” he recalled. “I was more nervous about what people would think about the songs that I made.”
He did it anyway, uploading a track to Soundcloud. It spread among his classmates, but only because the most popular kid in his school found the song. His review: “He hated it,” Robinson said.
“Instead of giving up, it kind of gave me the inspiration to keep going. I was like, ‘You know what? I'm not going to really listen to what anybody says about what I do,’” he continued. “I kind of just stepped back and allowed my life to make the course of its own.”
Robinson got a different reaction when he uploaded his next song to Soundcloud, an earnest balled titled “Saved,” which was the first song he wrote. “It kind of like blew up in the city, but me being military kind of had an influence on it because then it started hitting multiple people, and a lot of other people were finding out about the music.”
The music he uploaded online — a mix of sultry alternative R&B and acoustic folk and throwbacks to ’80s new wave built around a honeyed voice — hit a tipping point when Kylie Jenner posted videos of herself on Snapchat lip-synching to “Saved” and “Location.”
“That kind of rushed everything a little bit more,” he said. “It's kind of crazy to think that somebody's Snapchat can have the influence on what your career becomes. I think that's pretty insane.”
During his senior year, he informed his mother he wasn't going to go to college and instead wanted to pursue a recording career. As the person who hears his music before anyone else, his mom let him give it a go.
Working with executive producers Courtney Stewart, Joshua “Sky Sense” Scruggs and Tunji Balogun, who also handled the album’s A&R, Robinson explores the teenage gaze on the album.
While “Location” and “Saved” are anthems for a generation of teens who build and base their interpersonal relationships through subtweets and texts, the uncertainty of post-high school life — waxing about the future and being anxious to live outside the confines of mom’s house — is understandably a major thread.
“I’ve been waiting all year / to get the hell up out of here / And throw away my fears,” he croons on the title track. Elsewhere he sings about his car reeking of marijuana and how his mother will kill him, being “Young Dumb & Broke” and about love that he may or may not have actually experienced.
He’s anxious for people to hear the record, but Robinson today isn’t worried about anyone’s opinion but his own. He can thank that old classmate for such an attitude.
“It's just me. No features. I'm throwing it out there and if you guys like it, you like it. If you don't, you don’t,” he said. “It's so personal since I wrote everything, but I feel like as long as I like the project and I like the outcome of it, then I'll be happy and I'll be content, instead of searching for reassurance from other people. Hopefully people identify with it.”
For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy