Khalid is a man on a mission. The El Paso singer’s debut album ‘American Teen’ is on its way to achieving the “Platinum With No Features” status that became meme-famous when J. Cole pulled off the rare feat in 2015. Released in March, the album has already achieved gold status and ‘Lo-cation’, Khalid’s breakthrough single, recently went double platinum.
Both milestones accomplished before the age of 20, Khalid’s aspirations know no boundaries. “I definitely want to win a couple of Grammys. I want to be doing stadium tours. Then I’ll do my final album and retire right after, all before the age of 30,” he confides to Clash. “I want to be in a position where I look at my checklist and there’s nothing else left to check off. I want to look at it and know I did everything I wanted to do.”
He pauses for a moment, before proclaiming, with a grin, that he’ll likely retire and come back like JAY-Z. “I’m going to move to the middle of nowhere by myself - maybe I’ll get a couple of dogs - and just ghost. And then I’m going to come back at 40 and fuck the world up one more time.”
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I made the album when I was a teen...
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‘Location’ is an anthem of epic proportions, but not necessarily what you’d expect from a world-wide smash. His modern day wooing anthem is sonically simplistic, with vocals that are more soothing than powerful. The raw honesty contained within the lyrics have inspired listeners to connect, particularly those of Khalid’s generation, as he croons about not wanting to fall in love via sub-tweets, and urges for IRL dates.
“I’m just glad I went platinum before I turned 20,” Khalid states. “I made the album when I was a teen and look, I just proved to myself that teenagers can do whatever the fuck they wanna do if they just put their mind to it.” In his high school they publish Senior superlatives - a yearbook page representing the memories and personalities of their graduating class. “If you read mine it said: ‘most likely to go platinum’. Literally a year later, not long before my graduation, I was given my plaque.”
‘Location’ even inspired Lil Wayne to step out from his bat cave to contribute a verse to the song’s remix alongside Kehlani. “It’s so crazy to me that it even happened because I wasn’t expecting Wayne to be on it,” he admits. “I was in the process of getting Kehlani’s verse cleared and I was told we were waiting on one other person. I asked who and when Wayne’s name was mentioned I was like, ‘What. The. Fuck!’ I guess he listened to it and liked it so much he found himself inspired to do the remix.”
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Khalid has another high-profile supporter in Elton John. The same day he first heard his vocals used on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Heart Pt.4’, Khalid also ran into the Rocket Man: “He had a copy of ‘American Teen’ with him,” he says, surprised. “He asked me to sign it. Can you believe that?”
The album’s title centres around the song which shares it’s name. Khalid wrote the track before he realised that he’d be recording a full-length. “I had originally written a completely different song to that beat,” he recalls. “I trashed it and ended up writing something based off what the beat reminded me of, which was 90’s high school football games, cheerleaders and the American dream.”
“I remember when I was in the process of creating the album I was asked what I wanted to call it and straight off the bat I said, ‘American Teen,’” he admits. “I’m not afraid of my instincts. If I feel that way then I’m gonna go with it. I now look back after finishing the album and realise it’s really a representation of me, my friends and our experiences.”
Khalid confides that he gathered an even more powerful perspective of what being an American teen meant shortly after he’d written the song when Donald Trump found his way into the Oval Office. “I actually wrote it before the election,” he explains. “Growing up was definitely rough and I feel like a lot of American teens felt discouraged after the result. But what I kept in mind was finding positivity in different factors.”
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I’m not afraid of my instincts. If I feel that way then I’m gonna go with it.
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“I can believe in whatever I want to believe in, and I’m OK: I believe in myself, in who I am, in where I’m from. I believe in what I’ve grown up off of. I have the power to change the future with my own form of youth,” he declares.
“The election didn’t really go the way I wanted it to, but I have the power to change that in the future alongside other American teens. Let’s change things now. Let’s go out there. Let’s make a difference. Let me work on changing how things are. Let me change someone else’s mind frame with my music. And I’ve been working at that ever since.”
At the age of 19, Khalid is wise far beyond his years. As our discussion draws to its conclusion he offers a telling piece of advice to those looking for longevity in the music industry: “I feel like a lot of people feel that they have to imitate other successful people. No! If you built your empire based off of what you like then keep doing that shit. Trust your instincts. Do what you love. Don’t be an artist who puts out music that they don’t like.”
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'American Teen' is out now.
Words: Will Lavin