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Khalid's Timeless Pop Anthems For American Teens

Khalid's debut album, <em>American Teen</em>, explores timeless themes of love and loss.
Kacie Tomita
Courtesy of the artist
Khalid's debut album, American Teen, explores timeless themes of love and loss.

Are you still trying to understand that intense first love? Are you grounded from messing up your mom's car? Are you passionate about music that makes it all worthwhile? If so, then maybe you're a teenager looking for an anthem.

Enter Khalid Robinson with his debut album, American Teen, which he wrote when he was a senior in high school. He has been called a pop prodigy by Rolling Stone and counts people like Elton John among his fans. While his lyrics are very much of the moment, the themes he explores — belonging, love, loneliness, loss — are timeless.

And even though American Teen is blowing up the charts, Khalid hasn't gotten too big to credit his biggest influence: his mom, Linda Wolfe, a singer who has performed with the U.S. Army Chorus. They both spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about their bond and about Khalid's music. Hear the full interview — including a spontaneous mother-son duet on SWV's "Weak" — at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: Khalid, you are on tour right now. And I know as an army kid you're used to moving around a bit. But is it a little bit hard to be away from home?

Khalid Robinson: It does get a little bit stressful. Because when I used to move around, I moved around with family. Now I'm moving around alone. A lot of the friends I have back home too — we're kinda disconnected, a little bit, but I just can't wait until I have this show in El Paso in around two weeks.

Well, you didn't live in El Paso that long, right? Isn't that part of what motivated the album? That you had just gotten transferred at the end of your senior year, which was kind of tough.

Robinson: It was very tough. But I felt like it just gave me a sense of realization that I needed, which is the fact that a lot of things that we surround ourselves with are temporary only if we allow them to be. A lot of the old friends that I had in New York were temporary, and they fell off, but I met a lot of lifelong friends in El Paso who helped me and even pushed me to be in the career that I am right now. If I didn't move to El Paso, my life wouldn't be where it is right now.

Linda, did you know all this was in him? This gift, these thoughts, these ideas?

Linda Wolfe: To an extent. I knew that he was very gifted, vocally. I knew that he was a very smart, bright kid. But the writing skills — I didn't know he had that. DNA's a powerful thing!

Tell it, mom.

Wolfe: I am so, so, so proud. Just sitting back here, listening to him and how he just describes his journey — I can see his growth just by the conversation that we're having here.

And he's also very honest. Let's talk about "8TEEN." Khalid, anything you wanna share?

Robinson: So, I am very honest, and I am very honest with my mom — when I moved out of the house. [Laughs.] My mom and I, we have trust within each other because at one time in our lives, we were kind of all that we had, you know? My mom had me and I had her.

And so she let me go out. I didn't really tell her everything that I was doing when I went out, but a mom always knows. I'm pretty sure she knew that I was going out, I was having fun, I was doing stuff that I shouldn't be doing. But as long as she trusted that I was responsible, and I was gonna make the right decisions, I feel like that was all that really mattered.

Linda, when you hear this song, especially when you hear it on the radio, do you go "Oh boy"?

Wolfe: No. I definitely cherish the relationship I have with my son, and I raised him to be self-expressive and to make good choices. He was very, very smart to not let me find out he was doing all those things that he was doing. So he made smart choices at the time. [Laughs.]

Khalid, there's something you wrote in the pamphlet of the album: "I sing with the voice of individuals who have a hard time expressing how they feel, the individuals who are just like me. Not necessarily because they don't know how to express themselves, but because they're afraid no one will listen." That's quite a statement. Where did that come from?

Robinson: So for me, when I grew up, I never really had an outlet when it came to my social surroundings. Even if I had a form of popularity, I felt like I was very limited. And I felt like when I wanted to talk to either — if it was teachers, a lot of the teachers wouldn't listen to my problems because I felt like a lot of people thought that just because I was young, that my problems weren't problems.

I feel like a lot of people keep the fact that — "You know what, youth, they're not really going through anything because they're not 25 yet." But at the same time, a 25-year-old can go through the same form of heartbreak as a 35-year-old, as a 15-year-old. You know? Love crosses all boundaries. And so I felt like it was necessary to talk about the problems I went through when it involved love. Not only just to speak to people who were young, but just to speak to people in general — people who felt the love but didn't know how to express how they felt to someone else. And now it's as easy as, "OK, let me play them this song to tell them everything that I wanted to say to them."

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.