STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For an entire month this spring, the most-streamed artist in the world on the popular service Spotify was a 21-year-old from Texas. Within just a few years, he's gone from playing in coffee shops to a nationwide arena tour. Frannie Kelley reports on how Khalid Robinson did it through streaming.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: It was late spring in 2016 when an A&R exec, named Tunji Balogun, and an artist manager, named Courtney Stewart, separately caught wind of a teenager who was already going by only his first name, Khalid.
TUNJI BALOGUN: I heard a song called "Stuck On U" on SoundCloud, followed him on Twitter. He followed me back. And I just started talking to him, telling him this is extremely promising and, like, you know, I'm here if you need any help. At the same time, I think Courtney had come across him, right?
COURTNEY STEWART: Yep. 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.
KELLEY: Was "Location" one of them?
STEWART: So actually, "Location" was. Yeah. He started writing "Location" in that session. And then when he was on the plane flying back to Texas, he wrote the rest of the song. Insane, right?
KELLEY: "Location" was Khalid's breakout.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOCATION")
KHALID: (Singing) Send me your location. Let's focus on communicating 'cause I just need the time and place to come through, to come through. Send me your location. Let's rock the vibrations. I don't need nothing else but you.
KELLEY: The speed with which everything happened next was insane. "Location" went up on SoundCloud in May. It was introduced to Spotify users via a playlist called "Mellow Bars," one frequented by the music industry, and by June, Spotify had made him the face of the playlist. Half a year after that, the song was Billboard charting, and he was touring.
KHALID: They asked me what I wanted as an artist, and the answer I gave them was growth.
KELLEY: Khalid recalls his first meeting with RCA Records.
KHALID: 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.
KELLEY: His manager, Courtney Stewart, remembers that conversation, too.
STEWART: The first thing he said, he didn't want to be boxed in. 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 get put in the box of adult contemporary and you can't be mainstream.
KELLEY: So Stewart and Balogun planned writing sessions with musicians who are considered mainstream but all over the musical spectrum.
STEWART: I think what's special about him is that he's able to do a song with H.E.R...
(SOUNDBITE OF KHALID AND H.E.R. SONG, "THIS WAY")
H.E.R.: (Singing) If your love is absolute, what more can I say?
KHALID: (Singing) You make me this way.
STEWART: ...He's able to do a song with Marshmello...
(SOUNDBITE OF MARSHMELLO SONG FEATURING KHALID, "SILENCE")
KHALID: (Singing) I found peace in your violence. Can't tell me there's no point in trying. I'm at one, and I've been silent for too long.
STEWART: ...He's able to do a song with Elton John, and it's still true to who he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN AND KHALID SONG, "YOUNG DUMB AND BROKE")
ELTON JOHN: (Singing) Ya, da, da, da-da, da, da, da (ph).
KHALID: (Singing) Young, dumb, broke high school kid.
JOHN: (Singing) Ya, da, da, da-da, da, da, da.
KELLEY: If any of Khalid's high-profile collaborations - he put out more than 20 last year - sounded like a money grab, no matter how many different playlists they landed him on, he'd be dead in the water.
BALOGUN: The fans do research. And, like, if you didn't come from an authentic place, you're going to get found out and exposed a lot quicker in this era.
KELLEY: Tunji Balogun.
BALOGUN: And if the fans feel like it is something honest, they're going to love it even more because after they do their research, they're like, OK, wow, this person really 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.
KELLEY: So of his generation that Khalid's was one of the songs Kylie Jenner played through a Snapchat story heard by her millions of followers. Khalid says before the streaming era, which coincides with the social media era, celebrities were unreachable.
KHALID: Now you don't have to be - I don't want to say perfect. But for me, got this funny Afro. I wear these wacky clothes sometimes. And I'm not the most fit. Wouldn't classify myself as sexy. (Laughter). I was a kid. And I felt 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALK")
KHALID: (Singing) Can't we just talk? Can't we just talk, talk about where we're going? Before we get lost. Let me out first. Can't get what we want without knowing. I've never felt like this before. I apologize if I'm moving too far.
KELLEY: Khalid's songs slap right into the groove of everyday people's everyday listening.
LIZ PELLY: 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.
KELLEY: That's music journalist Liz Pelly, who's been writing about the shift towards streaming in The Baffler.
PELLY: 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. You know, music that is not too - it's just not something that can be expected of all music.
KELLEY: It's not that Khalid is aiming for wallpaper. If anything, it's a happy coincidence that the music he wants to make just plain works for our reactive, data-driven, streaming environment. But when Pelly looks at that environment, she sees doors closing.
PELLY: These are platforms that claim to be neutral that are repeatedly incentivizing the same types of styles that are almost demanding that all artists conform to the mechanisms of the pop machine and of their advertising system.
KELLEY: When Khalid and his team look at it, they see a challenge, says Tunji Balogun.
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. But there was a moment last year when we were like, wow, we were 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.
KELLEY: Balogun and Stewart say Khalid's story would have turned out far differently before streaming, when radio was king.
STEWART: I think radio would have definitely boxed him in.
BALOGUN: 'Cause of how he looks?
KELLEY: And by how he looks, you mean that he's a black man?
BALOGUN: That he's a black man so that means he belongs on a R&B or hip-hop station.
KHALID: I felt like to play the game, I had to look at the game and be like, you know what? My rules.
KELLEY: And for some of the more than 56 million people who've listened to Khalid's songs this month on Spotify, the numbers he puts up have meaning.
KHALID: I remember walking down the street in LA. There's this 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.
KELLEY: 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. For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.
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