This marks Khalid’s third consecutive year at SXSW. El Paso’s favorite son (at least of its hometown heroes who aren’t running for president) debuted at the festival in 2017, appearing in the same context that many rising young artists do—flitting from day party to day party, performing for an audience of people who are there for the free beer and whichever headliners they’ve actually heard of. That year, you could have caught Khalid at Urban Outfitters at 4 p.m., sandwiched between rappers Duckwrth and Elhae, or playing in the early evening on the tiny stage at Rainey Street’s Container Bar. By the time 2018 rolled around, he was a bonafide star, with five Grammy nominations and a platinum album under his belt, headlining at the Trinity Warehouse.
On March 14, Khalid appeared just in advance of the release of Free Spirit, one of the year’s most anticipated albums and the follow-up to his massive debut, American Teen. The setup was classic SXSW: an exclusive one-off performance from a superstar with no opener, paid for by a pair of high-profile brands (UberEats and McDonald’s partnered on the show), where badgeholders could get into by lining up around the block hours in advance or fans could get access to by winning a coveted “golden ticket” via the UberEats app. There was an open bar and free food—McDonald’s, naturally, serving fries, McNuggets, and cookies—before Khalid took the stage at a venue a fraction of the size he normally plays. It was the sort of FOMO-fueled, Instagram-worthy performance that seems destined to be watched through the phone screen of the person standing in front of you.
That’s not Khalid’s fault, and there’s something appropriate about watching an artist whose music centers on youthful exuberance perform in front of a crowd that is similarly youthfully exuberant about being there (and documenting their experiences on their phones). Khalid, for his part, joyfully bopped through the hour-long set, beaming like he still couldn’t believe listeners knew the words to songs he wrote in his bedroom.
The “songs he wrote in his bedroom” portion of the set was surprisingly long, too. Despite Free Spirit being slated for release in just three weeks, Khalid kept the album mostly under wraps at SXSW. He opened the set with a string of songs from American Teen, opening with “8TEEN” and going into “Winter,” “American Teen,” “Coaster,” “Another Sad Love Song,” and “Saved” before finally playing something that couldn’t have been on his setlist at SXSW 2017. That song, the Free Spirit single “Talk,” was followed up by his part of one of the many collaborations he recorded since breaking through—throughout the set, he performed excerpts from his 6lack/Ty Dolla $ign feature “OTW,” his Normani duet “Love Lies,” his Benny Blanco/Halsey collaboration “East Side,” and his Marshmello appearance, “Silence.” He also visited his 2018 EP, Suncity, for the hit “Better.”
A SXSW appearance just before the release of a new album is often thought of as a chance to preview the material and build buzz, but the highly anticipated Free Spirit probably doesn’t need a thousand or so people eating McDonald’s and watching through their phones in order to become a hit. Instead, fans got something a little different—Khalid’s 2019 SXSW appearance is likely to be the last time he ever plays a set that’s dominated by the songs from American Teen, so it might be useful to think of the set as the singer’s farewell to that material. Introducing “Young, Dumb, and Broke,” he told the crowd, “This is the song that changed my life.” He sings his songs with such joy that it’s infectious, dancing and smiling like every single night he’s on stage is the best night of his life. At one point during the set, he turned his back to the audience and pulled out his phone, taking a selfie with the crowd behind him.
Khalid performs with such an absolute control over his voice that it’s almost uncanny (how can someone have that much mastery over their own pitch, especially while they’re doing choreography with a handful of backup dancers?), but his talent was undeniable when he was a teenager recording “Location” in his El Paso bedroom, so his capabilities aren’t a surprise anymore. Instead, it’s a pleasure to watch as he continues to find his voice and says goodbye to the “breakthrough artist” phase of his career and moves onto “established superstar.” The fact that the SXSW crowd got to watch the moment of evolution feels like a true treat.