Here we explore the newfound success of R&B/soul singer Khalid, as well as the persistence of the theme of geographical location in his music, with much of the music on his debut album American Teen centering around the border city of El Paso Texas.
Guest post by Emily Blake of Next Big Sound
Location is very important to Khalid. I’m not just talking about “Location,” the debut single that launched the R&B/soul singer to fame last year and currently sits at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #34 on the Pandora Top Spins Chart. Rather, one location — El Paso, Texas — seems to be a living, breathing character on his just-released debut studio album, American Teen.
On the album’s title track, he references the city of the 915, “where all the girls are pretty” and “all my boys are with me.” On “Winter,” he dreads when “the days get harder in November” in his “lonely city of El Paso.” (Average November highs in El Paso are in the mid 6os, according to AccuWeather, but that’s neither here nor there.) The visuals “Location” were also shot in the border city. All of this isn’t that out of the ordinary until you learn that El Paso isn’t even Khalid’s hometown, technically. The 19-year-old recently moved there before starting his senior year of high school after growing up as a military child, moving every few years.
So, what is it about this location?
“El Paso was the place that kind of… it didn’t necessarily create me as an artist, but I feel like it changed me, and that’s where I had started making music. That’s where I started creating,” he explained. “So I feel like it had such a big influence on just the person I became. So when I was writing the album I just wanted to like give inflictions of El Paso and the culture.”
Listening to American Teen, you’ll hear 80s-influenced synths, reflections on love and technology, and, perhaps most notably, no featured artists.
“I think El Paso allowed me to just tap into the sense of loneliness that I have when it comes to writing music and focusing on the fact that loneliness isn’t a bad thing,” he said. “El Paso is in the middle of nowhere. A lot of people don’t know too much about the city, so I feel I tapped into the sounds of just… alone.”
Unlike artists from major metropolitan areas, where promising new artists are popping up every month, Khalid has seen his city give him just as much love back, rallying behind him like a hometown hero. The city is responsible for over 2,500 monthly artist station adds on Pandora. That’s far ahead of larger cities like Los Angeles or Atlanta, which rank #3 and #10, respectively. In total, El Paso makes up more than a 3% share of artist station adds on Pandora. According to data provided by Nielsen Music for the week ending March 9, sales of American Teen in El Paso roughly matched sales in New York City, including track equivalent album and streaming equivalent album sales, behind only Los Angeles.
“I understand because, you know, stuff like what I’m doing doesn’t necessarily happen in towns like El Paso,” he said. “So everyone’s very excited and feel like they have a bit of ownership, and it feels very personal when it comes to me… from it there’s so much positivity because they feel like they own me, they feel like I’m their child and I’m a beacon of hope.”
While Khalid isn’t quite a household name yet. He only just crossed over to what Next Big Sound would call Mainstream status a couple weeks ago, but Khalid tells us that in El Paso, “I can’t even walk around, really.”
He recounted a time when he held a CD signing party in El Paso and “literally thousands of people were waiting.” He couldn’t get to everyone and had to shut it down early. After he left, a car tried to follow him home.
It may be only a matter of time until Khalid sees this sort of attention everywhere. After all, American Teen debuted this week in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 Chart, moving 37,000 units. He also has a collaboration in the works with producer Zedd, who has a host of Billboard chart toppers hits under his belt with “Clarity” and “Stay the Night.” And while El Paso may still lead the charge in streaming activity on Pandora, his activity on Twitter is starting to spread, with cities outside the southwest, including Chicago and Philadelphia, ranking in the top 10 in Twitter mentions over the past month.
Khalid says he’s planning to split his time between L.A. and El Paso. “My days off I want to go back to El Paso and invite all of my friends, just to get the state of humility and groundedness, and to remember where I came from.”
This article originally appeared in Forbes on March 14, 2017.