Spill Tab opened the first night of the four-night showcase with a few notes of deep-rumbling bass, some tight drums, Claire Chicha’s voice, and not much else. And that was enough. On record, Spill Tab is a compellingly lo-fi solo project for Chicha. Onstage, the French-Korean singer and her two bandmates were less than a power trio, yet somehow more. She led them through half an hour of charismatic, punkish pop, strutting around the stage with a level of confidence that suggested bigger things to come. And when she plugged in a guitar for the alt-rock bop “Velcro” and ripped into a Blue Album solo, or turned up to a higher frequency on her hyperactive 2022 single “Crème Brûlée,” that future sounded closer than ever.
Baby Rose took the mic next for a set of songs that spotlit her striking, jazzy vibrato tones and her warm neo-soul production alike. “Shout out to all the women producers,” she said at one point. “I made this song in Logic.” There was real fire in her voice on highlights like “Stop the Bleeding” and “Go,” both drawn from her upcoming album Through and Through ; close your eyes and you could almost have believed you were at an R&B showcase in 1997 or a jazz club in 1957. But as her set went on, Baby Rose’s music felt timeless.
An entertaining festival lineup is all about contrasts, and Indianapolis singer-rapper midwxst (a.k.a. Edgar Sarrett) swerved hard with the next set. “My name is Edgar, I’m 19 years old, and this is my first SXSW!” he crowed as he launched into a barrage of pummeling hooks, distorted vocals, and punk-monk shouts that showed more than a little Playboi Carti influence . Midwxst debuted new material, including a song dedicated to his late aunt that will appear on his upcoming full-length debut, and performed his 2022 hit “i know you hate me” in the same singsong emo style, his filtered voice weaving around the beats. It’s an appealing combination, as the mosh pit that developed at the front of the room made clear. Some critics have tagged midwxst as hyperpop , thinking of the avant hints in some of his music, but he gave the crowd a more direct kind of thrill.
The evening hit its stride as Saba came out and went straight into the opening verse of “Stop That,” from last year’s excellent Few Good Things . The west side Chicago MC is a laidback presence onstage, killing you softly with his understated verbal dexterity. “This is my first show in five or six months, and I want to make sure we do this right,” he told the crowd. That meant lots of the candid wisdom heard on “If I Had a Dollar,” one of many incisive songs in his catalog about class, struggle, and the different paths a life can take: “Money don’t mean wealth, that just mean rich,” he keenly observed.
Saba is a SXSW veteran: He recounted tales of rapping in a laundromat, rapping on a street corner, and even showing up in Austin without any shows at all in the earliest days of his career. But he’s still growing, as he demonstrated by dipping backward in his catalog to the youthful defiance of 2016’s “Stoney” and “Westside Bound 3” and the emotional lows of 2018’s “Calligraphy” and “Broken Girls,” only to make his way to the bittersweet honesty of “2012,” another highlight from Few Good Things . These are songs united by the feeling of a person opening up over time, rich with all the pain and beauty in any individual mind. That vulnerability doesn’t mean he can’t also make the track bang, though; witness the energetic, full-steam performances of “Survivor’s Guilt” and “Life” toward the end of his set. As he left the stage, the crowd chanted in vain for one more song.
At last it was time for the main event. The energy had been steadily growing all night. Could the headliner live up to that? Yes, J.I.D could. On releases like last year’s The Forever Story , the Atlanta rapper and Spillage Village keystone is one of rap’s premier stylists, packing wit and meaning into every bar. He operates at a high level, and he expects the crowd to meet him there. J.I.D.’s set opened with “Never,” a song from a few years ago that he credited with putting him on this stage. He then put on an absolute lyrical clinic with 2018’s “Off da Zoinkys” and last year’s mile-a-minute “Raydar,” turning on a firehose of words that never tired out.
He reminisced about early trips to SXSW when he drove the 900 miles here from east Atlanta, hoping to get a break. That hunger still comes through in his music. “Put in my 10,000 hours while the clock still ticks,” he rapped on the nimble Forever Story highlight “Crack Sandwich.” And it’s a 10,000 hours type of flow with him, the voice of a guy who’s put in the work until the hard stuff looks easy. He strolled through his verses with nonchalant self-assurance, putting the crowd in the palm of his hand for relentless displays like 2018’s “Off Deez” and “151 Rum.” And he showed reverence for the past by playing a little of Yasiin Bey’s 1999 classic “Ms. Fat Booty” before sliding into his own song (“Surround Sound”) that freaks the same Aretha loop. But in his effortless mastery, J.I.D. stands for a future worth believing in.
(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)