About one year ago on January 12, 2017, prior to the release of his début album, American Teen, a then-18-year-old Khalid Donnel Robinson – practically fresh out of high school – played his first headlining concert at “Reggie’s Rock Club” – a small but popular 400-capacity joint near Chicago’s South Loop area.
One year later, American Teen has gone platinum (combined sales and album equivalent units of one million) and Khalid – a pop prodigy who hails from Texas and goes professionally by just his first name – has reached the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart three times – and the top ten on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts with those same three tracks: his own “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke,” as well as a featured vocal on the rapper Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” the suicide awareness single whose title is the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Khalid has also been nominated for four Grammys this year: Best Song (“1-800-273-8255), Best R&B Song (“Location”), Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best New Artist (a recognition he’s already won at this past year’s MTV Video Music Awards).
He now includes among his credits songs on which he’s been featured by bigger hip-hop stars like Kendrick Lamar and Future.
And, as if all of that isn’t enough, American Teen and the singles from it have also garnered Khalid international success, having charted in Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Philippines, New Zealand and the UK.
All of this from a young man who is less than two years removed from growing up on American military bases (including one that I also spent part of my childhood in: Fort Campbell, Kentucky) and whose 20th birthday is still a month away.
Khalid, whose music is very much of-the-moment, with references to current generational trends and technology like ride-sharing apps and location features, owes his international success to Snapchat, the photo and entertainment sharing app on which his “Location” and other songs were shared before “Location” went viral early last year.
Khalid’s accomplishments are even more noteworthy because…well, he’s a singer not a rapper, and he’s African-American. Furthermore, Khalid was raised by a single mother (his parents separated when he was young and his father died in a car accident when he was seven).
And let’s face it, with the exception of The Weeknd, black R&B singers just haven’t had this kind of success in recent years. Most of today’s black male artists who top the charts and achieve platinum-plus status are rappers. Khalid is likely the first début American male R&B singer to achieve platinum success since Chris Brown did it more than twelve years ago.
Those facts are probably not lost on the young singer who, because of his mother’s enlisted Army status, spent his early life moving from one army base to another and whose sense of stability suffered as a result. As he told Rolling Stone magazine recently, he considered himself an outsider at new schools he’d attend growing up. He was often chided by fellow students for being the new kid, the kid who was into performing arts (instead of sports), the “feminine” guy or “the fat kid.”
Those experiences, as well as the results of the 2016 presidential election, are what he says motivated him to be even more successful than others expected him to be. According to the RS interview, when one student ridiculed him on Snapchat for a song he posted, Khalid took that as a challenge and posted an even better one. When he saw Donald Trump’s election as a smack in the face to diversity, he decided to show the world that black men don’t have to pigeonholed into stereotypical roles in hip-hop or sports.
And now Khalid is indeed blowing up! He’s recently become a fixture on the national stage with appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the Today Show, the American Music Awards and most recently on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. His headlining tour (the “Location Tour”) which began at that 400-seat club in Chi-town, sold out all of its dates during an aggressive, two-month, 21-city trek that took him all over the country performing in venues that increased in size as the tour went on. (He later tacked on five more stops in Europe and is now set to perform at venues ten to twenty times the size of “Reggie’s.”)
Khalid’s work ethic has translated into even more success for the young singer with the very distinctive Afro/high-top fade who – judging by his sales numbers and the audience responses at the various venues at which he’s performed – appeals to millennials of all races. He attributes his musical versatility to his old-school influences (Fleetwood Mac, Adele, Bill Withers, Aaliyah and Father John Misty among them, according to the RS interview).
And now “Location,” that sparsely arranged début single about a budding relationship whose title is a reference to the “Location” feature that appears on social media or dating apps, has been certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA for four million downloads and track-equivalent streaming units.
And his “Young, Dumb & Broke” – an ironically dark, organ-driven ode to high school innocence – is still gaining momentum after six months on the charts. It just jumped to a new peak of #18 on the Hot 100 dated January 6. With recent remixes featuring popular rap acts Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty, plus a just-released mashup with Imagine Dragons’ current top-five smash “Thunder” giving the song more exposure, “Young, Dumb & Broke” is gunning to become Khalid’s first top ten as a lead artist.
Both songs succeed on some very basic principles that many record labels have apparently forgotten when it comes to developing (and sustaining) R&B artists. Despite lyrically being very specific to these millennial times, the songs make great use of melody and simple, easy-to-sing (and easily relatable) lyrical hooks while using modern beats to give them a current hip-hop vibe.
And both songs have done well on the video front, with each clocking over 200 million views on the singer’s VEVO channel.
As a result, Khalid has crossed over to mainstream audiences in a way that few other R&B artists in recent years have.
Will his success continue? It may be too early to declare long-term victory for someone who is only one album deep in an industry known for its flavor-of-the-month approach to artist development.
But for now, it’s safe to say that Khalid, who turns 20 on February 11, represents the immediate future of R&B/Hip-Hop (and pop), or is at least a significant part of it.
Oh, and he likely won’t be playing any 400-capacity venues like “Reggie’s” anytime soon.