RO.LEXX/Courtesy of the artist
RO.LEXX/Courtesy of the artist
In the spring of 2016, an A&R executive working for RCA Records named Tunji Balogun came across a song that had been uploaded onto SoundCloud a few months prior. It was called "Stuck On U," a wistful, folky but rap-aware two-and-a-half minutes written and performed — in one take, as its singer says at its opening — by a teenager already going by only his first name: Khalid.
"I followed him on Twitter," Balogun remembers. "He followed me back and I just started talking to him. He was in high school. It was early and I just was telling him — you know, giving him words of encouragement and letting him know, 'You're doing something really good here, man. This is extremely promising.' And like, 'I'm here if you need any help or any resources.'"
Around the same time, Khalid's music was heard by an artist manager named Courtney Stewart. "I was like, 'We need to get him to Atlanta as soon as possible,'" he says. Stewart flew Khalid out from El Paso, where he was a second semester senior. "[I] set up the first real session with him in the studio and I just saw him write two or three songs in front of my face that were, like, incredible."
One of those songs was "Location," tempered on top and nervy underneath. Utilizing several different means of expression concurrently, a few moods, it sounds like a risky text feels. Technically confident and projecting into the future. "He started writing that in that session," Stewart says. "And then when he was on the plane flying back to Texas he wrote the rest of the song. Insane, right?"
Khalid posted "Location" on SoundCloud in May. It was introduced to Spotify users via a playlist called Mellow Bars, one devoted to hip-hop that won't interfere with your day, frequented by the music industry and which today has nearly 800,000 followers. The data showed plenty of people listening to the song all the way through, and by June Spotify had made him the face of the playlist. Balogun and Stewart did some tidying up and some communicating with all the digital service providers, organizing Khalid's output to make it legible to the industry. By January of 2017, "Location" was in the lower rungs of the Billboard Hot 100 and he was touring.
On March 3, 2017, about a year after Balogun and Stewart first heard him on SoundCloud, and within a month of his 19th birthday, Khalid released his debut album, American Teen, on RCA Records.
Though the speed with which everything happened was insane, the snowballing of "Location" into an all-platform popular hit wasn't unprecedented. A century of institutional knowledge has prepared major labels and the DSPs to digest that form of public excitement, and the colloquial name for the result is "one-hit wonder." But Khalid's team had more expansive aspirations. They routed his work through feeder playlists and data-dependent placement processes, gathering momentum from all sides, while he enacted his personality in front of and in conversation with the most media literate fans to ever exist. They took advantage of the particular traits of the distributive system we're working with today. And they built what has become a nascent career.
"They asked me what I wanted as an artist and the answer I gave them was growth," says Khalid, recalling his first meeting with the label. "I was like, I want to grow as an artist. I want to grow as a person. I want my music to grow as well: growth."
His manager Stewart was there. "The first thing he said [was that] he didn't want to be boxed in," he says. "Being a black artist, that's always a challenge. They want to label you an urban artist. Or if you're a very soulful artist, sometimes you'll get put in the box of adult contemporary, and you can't be mainstream."
Stewart and Balogun planned writing sessions with musicians who work all over the musical spectrum, many of whom are already mainstream. "I think what's special about him is that he's able to do a song with H.E.R., he's able to do a song with Marshmello, he's able to do a song with Elton John and it's still true to who he is," Stewart says.
Khalid's own records, the ones that appear on his albums, ride the line between R&B and pop. The welcome he's provided by independent playlists followed by unconnected audiences gives him a particular kind of viability in the streaming market. He can have more than one type of hit at a time, and the listeners to one don't subtract from the listeners to the others.
"He kind of very carefully keeps a foot in both of those worlds," says Balogun. "So when it comes to playlisting, we attempt to reach either with his music. Whether it's like, 'Let's try to get the biggest R&B looks,' or, 'This is more of a mainstream sounding record, let's go for the more pop and maybe fitness-style mood playlists.'"
And his collaborations land his work on other people's playlists, including the playlists of people with large and rabid followings, people like Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran. Khalid was featured on more than 20 songs last year, working with pop stars like Halsey and electronic musicians from DJDS to Martin Garrix. This year he did a remix with country singer Kane Brown.
"It's our job as his team to make sure that it's all paced perfectly and that we're not, like, overdoing it," Balogun says. "It's about galvanizing the people that are already in love with him and then slowly trying to reel in other people through these collaborations with other artists that he respects. Let's just figure out an order to the chaos and make it make sense."
Khalid's team's cup seems to overflow, though their wrangling of his productivity acknowledges a suspicion that can accompany any flooding of the market. Too many songs, too often, in too many places can make listeners start to feel that a musician is being foisted upon them. For music fans in another era, this could feel overwhelming, but in the streaming world an individual listener isn't hearing all of Khalid's songs at once.
Historically, collaborative work has served a few different functions. Whether we're talking about supergroups or remixes, collaborations or features are a tried and true way to introduce a new act to an audience held in a previously existing fandom. In the course of these efforts, they can manipulate broadcast data systems (which count all versions of a song that, say, shuffles the lineup of performers but doesn't alter the song fundamentally, as the same entry) or fuse genres, which has in the past confounded terrestrial radio mores. If Khalid's work was only being filtered through the limited playlists operated by terrestrial radio, for radio's purposes, especially in a consolidated landscape reigned over by Clear Channel, his progress would have been slowed.
But Khalid's omnipresence in the streaming environment actually helped him get played on the radio — all over the radio. On my drive to interview him in Phoenix, I flipped through the dial, thinking if I caught one of his songs I could mention it for a little icebreaker. In 20 minutes I caught four of his songs, on four different stations. Two were off his latest album, one was a pop feature and the last a dyed in the wool R&B duet.
I told him, and he laughed, unsurprised. "It's crazy," he says, "but it comes from streaming. Streaming gets it first, you know, the fans. Younger generation — they're all for streaming. They hear it first. That's when the older people ... they see it. Half of these radio-heads are asking their kids, 'What are they listening to?' And their kids are telling them, 'I'm listening to so and so and I'm listening to so and so.' And that's how these artists get huge off of streaming and cross over to radio. Because ... streaming, it's the numbers. It's the facts. You just got a hundred million plays. Are you going to deny that?"
And if the kids whose parents program the radio decide what gets on, they thereby decide what doesn't. Balogun and Stewart's understanding of the power fans hold is that you can do all the collaborations you want, and play to as many niches as are available to you, but if any of it sounds like a money grab, you're dead in the water.
"I think we're also in an era where the fans do research," Balogun says. "If you didn't come from an authentic place, you're going to get found out and exposed a lot quicker in this era. And if the fans feel like it is something honest, they're gonna love it even more, because, you know, after they do their research they're like, 'OK. Wow, this person really, you know, got it out the mud,' as we would say in hip-hop. He benefited from that, and he's really an artist that's of his generation."
When he was just getting started, a peer of Khalid's — the make-up entrepreneur and social media influencer Kylie Jenner — played a song of his through a Snapchat story, where it was heard by her millions of followers. Khalid says before the streaming era, which coincides with the social media era, celebrities were unreachable.
"Now, you don't have to be, I don't want to say, 'perfect,' but for me, like, [I've] got this funny Afro, wear these wacky clothes sometimes and I'm not the most fit — wouldn't classify myself as sexy in any right. Debatable," he says. "I was a kid and I feel like people could look at me and they could see their classmate, you know. People are coming to us for comfort because they relate to us so much."
Khalid's songs slot right into the groove of everyday people's everyday listening.
"The other day, I looked up 'Location' and saw that it was on a yoga playlist and it was also on a late-night party playlist," says music journalist Liz Pelly, who's been writing about the cultural shift toward streaming in The Baffler.
"Part of the playlist conversation is this idea of background music or music that does really well as a sort of emotional wallpaper, as I've called it," Pelly says. "It's just not something that can be expected of all music."
Khalid and his team aren't aiming for wallpaper, but his songs are made flexible by their tonality and, with their shy edge and up-to-date details, eminently relatable. The way to dominate our reactive, data-driven streaming league is to chase ubiquity. His songs have performed so well that as of this publication, three years after a fast break from the fringes of the music industry, Khalid is the 4th-most streamed artist on all of Spotify. For a month this spring, right after he released his sophomore album Free Spirit, he held the No. 1 spot. He's currently on a nationwide arena tour. Last week, his single "Talk" became his first song to climb to the top of a radio chart — Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.
Khalid has carefully managed his career, turning down offers others would leap at, maintaining the integrity of who he is in the popular imagination. And he's been diligent on social media, tending to an audience seeking connection. It's a feature of the moment that we're living in that there are so many different contexts in which a listener can encounter a musician — any number of mood or activity-based playlists that could be launched by any establishment whenever.
Today, playlists pull the strings of our experience of listening to music, both in public and in private. As listeners, our agency takes the form of switching to a different playlist, or skipping a song before it's finished. The way we register our approval is by hanging around. And the math between those decisions is the role we play in determining who makes it and who doesn't. DSPs watch us do either, and more.
When Pelly looks at that logic, she sees doors closing.
"These are platforms that claim to be neutral that are repeatedly incentivizing the same types of styles that are almost like, demanding that all artists conform to the mechanisms of the pop machine and of their advertising system," she says.
When Khalid and his team look at it, they see a challenge, says Tunji Balogun.
"We didn't intentionally sit down one day and say, 'This is how we're going to get him to No. 1 on Spotify,'" he says. "But there was a moment last year when we were like, 'Wow, we are actually kind of like randomly just hitting all these different spaces, and if we keep doing this we're going to get to a place where we might be able to have a shot for this No. 1 thing.'"
The system is evolving quickly. When Spotify launched in the U.S. in 2011 its gambit was searchable music with the option for listeners to make their own playlists. It took the company a few years to leverage listening data into playlists made under its auspices and begin using playlists to promote specific songs. It opened up shop in India this year, and it's still not available in China, the vast majority of Africa or most of the Caribbean. In another few years, any shot at No. 1 in the world will require an entirely different offense.
Balogun and Stewart say Khalid's story would have turned out far differently before streaming, when radio was king.
"I think radio would have definitely boxed him in," says Stewart. "Cause of how he looks." I asked him if by how he looks he meant that Khalid is a black man. "Yeah," says Balogun. "He's a black man. So that means he belongs on an R&B or hip-hop station."
Khalid saw what he was up against from his first days in the industry, he says. "I felt like to play the game I had to look at the game and be like, you know, what? My rules."
It's hard to know what putting numbers on these particular boards means. As Spotify and the other DSPs sign up more subscribers, more people are listening, especially to acts with the highest name recognition. There are more and more charts by which a song can hit No. 1 now, with the concomitant publicist deluge regarding their every movement. If everybody's charting, everybody's got an asterisk.
But then everybody already did, because every previous iteration of the music business has favored something or somebody, with its technological limitations and its reproductions of societal biases and failures.
Still, and maybe even because of that, for the nearly 7 million people who follow Khalid on Instagram or the 3.6 million with him on Twitter — and some portion of the 56 million who listened to his songs on Spotify in the last month, his stats have meaning.
"I remember walking down the street in L.A.," he says. "There's one girl. She has her earphones in. She sees me, she stops. And she goes, 'You're like a little brother to me. Keep going. Trust me. We see you.' She's like, 'And we love to see you win.' And then kept walking. No picture. No nothing."
Khalid and his team figured out what the people want, and they found a way to get it to them. And everybody loves a Cinderella story.