Khalid is in album mode. Don’t text.
It’s been over a year since the release of his last project, Free Spirit, and three years since American Teen, the album that catapulted the El Paso native up streaming playlists and award show shortlists. Khalid reminisces about his debut album fondly and even hints that he’s in the same headspace now as he was making the album that would earn him three Grammy nominations.
“I’m zoning in on my creativity,” he tells Complex. “I feel like I’m taking it back to the basics, kind of writing the album how I approached American Teen, and American Teen is so special to me. I feel that same sort of inspiration I felt when I first started creating.”
There are few artists who, at such a young age, can rack up numbers like Khalid does. He’s Spotify’s tenth-most streamed male artist of all time and the youngest artist in history with over fifteen billion streams on the platform. And more often than not, he doesn’t come alone. Two of his biggest collaborations—“Lovely” with Billie Eilish and “Eastside” with Halsey and Benny Blanco—are among Spotify’s 100 most streamed songs ever. Now, Khalid is dropping again soon. DSPs and the music industry, take note.
Streaming tallies, arena tours, and VMA nominations (he just picked up another two) aside, the star remains extraordinarily grounded, emphasizing that he stays with the same circle—often in the same town—and just makes music because he has the opportunity to do so.
Khalid is proud of his come-up story and wants to help another artist with theirs. So he teamed up with Reebok for the Write Your Legacy contest, in honor of the launch of the Reebok Classic Leather Legacy. The U.S.-only contest will give one singer-songwriter an opportunity to be mentored by Khalid and $10,000 to spend toward their music career. Contestants can enter here by submitting a two-minute video or less, explaining what they want their legacy to be, plus a 60-second sample of them singing an original song.
Complex got on the phone with Khalid to talk about his partnership with Reebok, the VMAs, working with 6LACK, his favorite songwriters, and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
Why was it important for you to team up with Reebok and help out a singer-songwriter with this opportunity?
Back when I was an up-and-coming artist, I didn’t have the resources myself to really do what I was doing on my own. I probably started writing around 10th grade, and I never really had the resources, so I didn't have the courage to believe that I could do it. Money was always a problem. One thing I really appreciate about my life was my come-up story and all the work that I put in. Just how fun it was finding myself, and developing my sound. That to me is the most important part of every artist.
Reebok is giving away $10,000. How valuable is $10,000 for an up-and-coming artist?
Oh my God, $10,000. For me, coming up off of SoundCloud, if I had $10,000… [Laughs] I can just remember how excited I was doing my first show and getting an offer of $10,000. I think what’s so important about it is equipment. With [that money] you can get a nice microphone, you can get a nice laptop. Those tools are necessities. Me, I kind of just depended on my friends. They were willing to help me, because they believed in me. I just think about how fortunate I was, and I know that there are people out there that [know] this is their dream, and really the only thing that’s holding them back is finances. It’s just so crazy that to be an artist, you have to have a starting point and a certain amount of money. This is the perfect form of help. And I love new artists. I’m always looking for new artists. I’m always listening to new artists.
In the contest, people share what they want their legacy to be. What about you?
I want my legacy to be a lot of things. One thing that I really try to be is a standout person and a standout human being. I try to remain grounded. If I passed away and wanted to be remembered for anything, it’s the fact that I see myself as just a regular person. Just a regular person who got an opportunity to do something that he loved and is doing it at the capacity that [I am] now. I kick it with the same homies. I have the same friends. I’m only 22 years old. For me, I do it because I love to do it, and I get the opportunity to [do it].
You’re only 22, but now you have two new VMA nominations. Congratulations on that! Can you tell me how the joint with Summer Walker (“Eleven,” which is nominated for Best R&B Song) came about?
Oh my God, [Laughs] so before I wrote “Eleven” I was just back to writing music because I had been on tour. It was the first time that I was home. One thing I really love to do when I get home is: I love to drive and listen to music. For me, when I think of “Eleven,” you’re just riding slow at night in your car with people you care about. That’s my favorite thing to do, that’s how that song came about.
Back in 2017, you won the VMA for Best New Artist. Any standout memories from that show?
One of my favorite memories from that day was posing with Fifth Harmony, because I love them so much. That was one of the first few times I met Normani, too. That definitely inspired us to become friends, and us being friends, we were able to make a song like “Loves Lies.” That’s a song that changed my life and my career.
If you could give one piece of advice to 19-year-old Khalid accepting that VMA in 2017, what would it be?
My advice would be to not take myself as seriously and to come as I am. Hope for the best but at the same time, don’t set expectations for myself. I would definitely commend myself though! [Laughs]
I mean, yeah! Gas yourself up!
I get to be the person that I am now. That little boy is lucky.
You wrote on Twitter that you’re working on an album. Is there a project on the way in 2020?
I’m not even going to put a year on it, but I would say I’m definitely working on an album for sure. I’m in album mode. I’m zoning in on my creativity. I feel like I’m taking it back to the basics, kind of writing the album how I approached American Teen, and American Teen is so special to me. I feel that same sort of inspiration I felt when I first started creating. I feel like a little kid again.
Since you like making music for people to drive to: If you had to make a quick ten-minute trip to the store, what three songs are you playing?
“Some Place Else” by MorMor. It’s perfect. “Beautiful” by Rhye. And I really, really enjoy “Due West” by Kelsey Lu.
Free Spirit and “Talk” were such big successes. Sometimes people talk about a sophomore slump, but that obviously didn’t happen for you. What do you think is important to keep early fans engaged?
Communication is the most important thing, and having conversations with the people who support you, your friends, and your fans. I meet these people at meet-and-greets and I sit there and I try to have five-minute conversations with everyone. I really want to feel connected with the people who listen to me. When I think about my music, it’s still surreal to this day to think about people using my music in certain situations in their lives. The best way for me to be artistic would also be to know what my fans want to hear. When someone comes to me and says, “You know, I’ve been having a really tough time and this song really helped me so much,” it’s like okay, maybe I should dive deeper. Maybe I should write about this more. If you really want to keep people in your loop, you’ve got to treat them like people and actually sit down and talk to them. Who’s going to support you if they don’t know you?
Another artist who is great at connecting with fans is Billie Eilish. She also had this huge debut project, and now she’s gearing up for her second project. Have you heard the new single?
Oh my God, I love it so much. I love how she doesn’t define herself in a box. I’ve seen her creative process. We have a song “Lovely” together and we did that in-person. We were kicking it, we were talking, and that’s just how that happened. I already know her relationship with her brother Finneas, who is an amazing songwriter. They both are. I will just forever support them. I love her music so much, and I love Finneas’ music so much.
Who haven’t you worked with that you’d want to down the line?
Umm, Rosalía. I love her music a lot. I think that she’s awesome. I think that she just always puts herself in everything. You can just see how she’s evolving as an artist and it’s so great to watch and follow. I really love her music a lot.
For the songwriters entering the competition, is there someone other than yourself who they should look up to?
James Fauntleroy. James Fauntleroy’s pen is extraordinary. Oh, also Victoria Monet. Victoria Mo-net! Her music and her pen is just out of this world. She’s so good. Both of them. Those are my top two.
You and [Victoria Monet] have a new song out, too! How’d you end up linking?
We linked up off of genuine energy. Meeting each other in the studio, conversations with me, her, and Lucky Daye. Just chatting in the studio, talking about life and how blessed we are to be musicians. Our friendship inspired the record. I’m just super grateful to be a part of it. When she sent me the song, I was like, “Yo, this is going to be my favorite song.” So good.
Another person I see you chat with on social media is 6LACK, and you guys made “OTW” together. How’d that friendship and camaraderie start?
6LACK is my brother. I love him so much. That kind of came up out of mutual respect for each other’s projects on Twitter. I had heard Free 6lack, and I’m like, “Yo, I’ve never heard anything like this.” It’s so different, and so unique. And he appreciated my music as well. We ended up becoming friends back around 2017. We still kick it to this day. For sure, there will definitely be another song in the future. We can easily hit each other and be like, “Yo, you bored? You want to do something?” It always comes natural.
If you had words of advice for the people entering the contest, what would it be?
Just be yourself. My advice would be to not be so hard on yourself. In reality, we’re our toughest critics. Also, just to soak in the process. Those moments are going to be some of the best moments of your life.