Just out of high school when he made his commercial debut with the ballad "Location" (2016), non-traditional R&B singer and songwriter Khalid attracted a large following with an undemonstrative but heartfelt vocal style and a down-to-earth perspective. Although he attained a major-label contract within months of uploading his first songs, "Location" moved into the mainstream at a slow tempo similar to that of the song itself and became a Top 20 pop hit just after the release of American Teen (2017), one of the biggest album debuts of the late 2010s. Within a period of just over a year, Khalid went from an unknown everyday teenager to a chart-topping, platinum-certified pop star with Grammy nominations for "Location" and American Teen, plus Logic's "1-800-237-8255," on which he appeared. The Billboard 200-topping Free Spirit (2019) wasn't released until two years after American Teen, but Khalid was busy throughout the interim with an assortment of featured appearances and collaborations highlighted by the Top Ten pop hits "Love Lies" (with Normani) and "Eastside" (headlined by Benny Blanco).
Khalid Robinson was raised by his mother, whose military career necessitated an itinerant upbringing. Originally from Fort Stewart, Georgia, Khalid also lived on military reservations in Kentucky and New York, as well as in Heidelberg, Germany, before his mother was transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Throughout, music had been a constant -- Khalid started singing as early as he could speak, and his mother performed with the U.S. Army Chorus -- but a supportive environment at El Paso's Americas High School sparked his creativity and boosted his confidence. While at Americas, Khalid uploaded his first recordings. They quickly reached A&R executive Tunji Balogun, who signed the artist to major-label RCA.
Khalid's commercial debut was made in August 2016, three months after he received his high school diploma, with "Location." A sparse love ballad produced by a team of six including Smash David and Syk Sense, it reflected the singer's affinity for the likes of James Blake and Frank Ocean. The anti-anthemic second single "Young Dumb & Broke" didn't arrive until the following February, as "Location" was remarkably still gaining ground, and set up the March release of the album American Teen. Containing both singles, the LP entered the Billboard 200 at number nine. "Location" finally peaked on the R&B/hip-hop and Hot 100 charts, respectively at numbers two and 16, two months later, and "Young Dumb & Broke" likewise took off gradually, ultimately topping the R&B/hip-hop chart and also landing within the pop Top 20. Khalid became a sought-after featured artist in the process. He and Alessia Cara contributed to Logic's April 2017 single "1-800-237-8255," a Top Ten pop hit titled after the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The song was subsequently nominated for Grammy Awards in the categories of Song of the Year and Best Music Video. At the same time, "Location" was up for Best R&B Song, American Teen was nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Khalid himself was among the nominees for Best New Artist.
A discography of featured roles that included additional 2017 singles such as Calvin Harris' "Rollin'," Marshmello's "Silence," and a remix of Lorde's "Homemade Dynamite" continued to grow through 2018. Khalid made more chart impressions via Shawn Mendes' "Youth" and Benny Blanco's Top Ten hit "Eastside," among other appearances. More prominently as a headliner or co-headliner, Khalid contributed to the soundtracks of Love, Simon, 13 Reasons Why, and Superfly; the Normani duet "Love Lies" went Top Ten, and he also charted alongside Billie Eilish with "Lovely." Khalid meanwhile worked toward his second album with the singles "OTW" and "Better." The latter topped the R&B/hip-hop chart, went Top 20 pop, and appeared on Suncity, an EP issued that October. Early the next year, Khalid issued "Saturday Nights" and "Talk" before the April arrival of Free Spirit, which entered the Billboard 200 at number one. "Talk," a number three pop hit, earned Khalid his sixth Grammy nomination, this one for Record of the Year. ~ Andy Kellman
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