When Khalid Robinson’s family traveled around the world moving from military base to military base, he ended up in places like New York, Kentucky and even Germany. But one location stood out from the rest.
“As a military child, and I’m speaking from experience, Texas is the place that everyone wants to go,” he says.
With 15 active-duty bases across the state, Texas is home to more than 173,000 active and reserve members of the military, second only to California. While Robinson said San Antonio was popular among his friends, his family was placed in El Paso for his senior year of high school. He found himself in a new place, hundreds of miles away from his friends.
So he turned to music. He would stare at McKelligon Canyon and the mountains that surround the city and write music as he immersed himself in the state’s natural beauty. Eventually, he made friends who encouraged him to record his music.
“Ever since I started making music in El Paso, they just accepted me as their own, like I was born and raised there,” says Robinson, who goes by his first name, Khalid.
Today, Khalid has adopted Texas’ lonely desert town of El Paso as his own, but he’s also helping put it on the R&B map. His debut album, American Teen, came out in March and peaked at the ninth spot on the U.S. Billboard charts. The album’s lead single, “Location,” has already been certified platinum. Twice. He's also a nominee for the 2017 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist.
It’s safe to say Khalid, just 19 years old, is the next big act to come out of Texas. His concerts resonate with fans who already know his music. A recent show in Santa Monica attracted around 60,000 people and every show on his tour has sold out so far. His Dallas show on July 27 is already sold out.
Khalid’s music is written from the perspective of someone who knows the bittersweet feeling of falling in love in the digital age. Lines like “I don’t want to fall in love off of subtweets, so let’s get personal” on “Location” may be some of the most honest depictions of how romance works, or doesn’t, in the 21st century.
“We hear stories about people carrying boomboxes and singing in people’s windows and all that type of stuff,” Khalid says. “Now it’s about tweets and text messages and pictures. ... The way that we receive love is definitely changing, and people’s expectations, I think they’re pretty low.”
Khalid’s outlook comes from someone who grew up in an era when late-night text messages replaced romantic letters. But the emotions are still there: He makes deep observations about love and life on American Teen, especially for someone not old enough to buy himself a beer. His songs capture youthful bliss on “Young Dumb & Broke,” heartbreak on “Winter.”
Khalid’s music gets to the core of what it means to be a teenager. It’s exciting, electric and finishes before you want it to be over.
Now that he’s the first big act to make it out of El Paso in the R&B world, Khalid’s become something of a hometown hero. He says he can’t even go out in El Paso; too many people recognize him.
Still, he’s proud of the city and state that adopted him. He even has his favorite Whataburger order memorized: a No. 2 with cheese, mayo, ketchup, large fries, a milkshake and a Sprite. Spicy ketchup on the side.
“Whataburger is so fire,” he says. “I can’t wait to go back.”
Khalid isn’t working on a follow up to American Teen just yet. But he knows what direction he wants it to go.
“I don’t know when I’m going to work on my next project, but when I do I hope it’s a very, very deeply, very personal side of me,” he says.
Khalid is playing a sold-out show at South Side Ballroom in Dallas on July 27 at 8 p.m.
Updated at 11:07 a.m. to add details of Khalid's MTV nomination.