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SXSW 2018: In Khalid’s utopia, all are welcome

Bryan Rolli

You can see the world in Khalid’s smile.

At least, you can see the world he wants to create. When Khalid flashes those huge, glistening, spotless teeth, it’s obvious he’s envisioning a world where everybody lives in harmony and accomplishes their wildest dreams, uninhibited by age, race, gender or wealth. And why shouldn’t he? The 20-year-old R&B crooner became one of the biggest, most wholesome success stories of 2017 with his masterful debut, “American Teen,” which articulates the emotional complexities of adolescence and the anxious excitement of entering adulthood. It is neither contrite nor self-serious, jaded nor maudlin. It sounds, quite simply, like utopia.

And in Khalid’s utopia, all are welcome.

The honorary El Paso native emerged from the side of the Trinity Warehouse stage shortly after midnight, a Texas flag proudly projecting on the stage behind him. Dancers holding American flag pom-poms worked through ebullient cheer routines as Khalid flexed his velvety pipes, flashing a knowing grin at a fan the same way one would greet a friend at a high school football game.

“Thank you because you come to every (expletive) thing, whether it’s in Texas, whether it’s in Florida, whether it’s in L.A.,” he said. “I love you.”

MORE PHOTOS: Khalid at SXSW 2018

Khalid doesn’t need to push his range to make a point. Instead, his strength lies in making his fluid vocal runs seem effortless, and then turning those effortless vocal runs into magnificent acts of catharsis. When he sings, “But I’ll keep your number saved, ‘cause I hope one day you’ll get the sense to call me” in “Saved,” he’s surely addressing one person, but he’s also speaking on behalf of any person who has ever known heartbreak. That is to say, the whole world.

Although he just exited his teens last month, Khalid has already conquered the music industry, going quadruple platinum with his debut single “Location” and racking up five Grammy nominations for “American Teen.” It would have been unsurprising, if disheartening, to see him treat his SXSW like a chore, especially when he’s due to embark on a North American arena and amphitheater tour in less than two months. But Khalid’s also smart — and grateful — enough to recognize his incredible fortune, and he shared his fans’ rapture on Thursday night. His radiance wasn’t limited to the venue, either: The woman on the receiving end of a FaceTime call beamed as she watched the singer from many miles away.

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“I’m not gonna act like I haven’t sung this song 10,000 (expletive) times, but this is a special occasion for you,” Khalid joked before playing a stripped-down version of “The Ways,” his Swae Lee collaboration off the “Black Panther” soundtrack. His virtuosic backing band lent the song a newfound sensuality in its slowed-down, more organic incarnation, while they punched up other tracks with red-hot drum fills and keyboard leads. His EDM-flavored Marshmello collaboration “Silence” turned into a muscular R&B freakout, as the singer sauntered across the stage during the transcendent beat drop.

Khalid ended his set, predictably, with the anthemic “Young, Dumb & Broke,” effectively closing the book on the first chapter of his career and preparing to embrace his imminent superstardom. Fans at the Trinity Warehouse witnessed a rare snapshot of an artist at the top of his game, with nowhere to go but up, yet still in a refreshingly human capacity.

When Khalid graces the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park in two months, he’ll still be singing the same utopian daydreams. And all people — young and old, dumb and smart, broke and rich — will still be welcome.