Abel Tesfaye’s ascension from seedy, enigmatic cult figure to bona fide pop star has been less a pivot than a true growth, a transformation that’s resulted in a resonant, industry-shifting sound.
Tesfaye, better known as the Weeknd, gave a bold performance last night at the Xcel Energy Center that proved he’s among today’s top singers. He began his set dramatically, rising from beneath the floor, wreathed in smoke, to the opening of Daft Punk’s driving beat for “Starboy,” and throughout the night, basking in the lights and the screams of the audience, Tesfaye brought the grandiosity necessary to fill the space.
An appropriately impressive stage set-up helped. Tesfaye spent most of his time amid the crowd on a platform extending into the arena, below a frequently shifting block of multiple lit screens that created an incredible visual dynamic. And a live band not only recreated the groove of his productions but added intensity, moving from accents to solos when necessary to highlight their own impressive showmanship, with each player stealing a bit of attention on at least one song.
Tesfaye focused on the hits, and there were plenty to choose from. Aside from a pair of songs from the Weeknd’s 2011 debut mixtape, House of Balloons (“The Morning” and “Wicked Games,” two standouts that helped define gift for falsetto earworms), the set list stuck with the past two years of his output, particularly the 2016 hit album Starboy, reflecting his evolution toward dance music and less explicitly debauched lyrics. He completed ignored his 2013 major label debut, Kiss Land, his final release from within the insular haze of his early career.
Tesfaye has moved from collaborating with a small circle of producers (including St. Paul-born Doc McKinney, a driving force behind the Weeknd’s defining trilogy of early mixtapes) to working with higher-profile names who know how to make pop songs. And this works – infectious hits like “Earned It” and “In The Night” are even more powerful in a live setting, boosted by the singer’s personality and unorthodox star power.
Tesfaye’s voice was just as compelling as when it was all we knew about the mysterious singer, shifting subtly between syrupy allure and boasts made in a slight rap cadence. At times, such as during closer “The Hills,” he left some of the heavy vocal lifting to the audience (who relished the opportunity), but there were also plenty of moments when his belting was nearly in a class with R&B greats like Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. And beyond the consistent vocal quality, he also carried himself and interacted with the crowd like a true star, feeding off the energy of the boisterous arena.
Tesfaye’s onstage patter was tailored to the locale. He shouted out his fellow East Africans in the building, referenced his first Twin Cities show at First Avenue in 2012, and closed by acknowledging Prince, a clear progenitor of his unapologetically libidinous music. After the show, he took smiling photos with McKinney and Bobby Raps (both contributed production work to Starboy), as well as Muja Messiah and Maria Isa.
For someone once so cloaked by a shadowy anonymity, the Weeknd was profoundly present throughout the night, discarding all ambiguity and intentionally seeking to connect with people. During the chorus of “Can’t Feel My Face,” he sang the harmony, leaving the melody to the crowd, creating a powerful moment of shared engagement. The Weeknd seems determined to fill the shoes of past R&B legends, and last night he proved that he was more than worthy.
Click here to see photos of the Weeknd at Xcel
Six Feet Under
Or Nah (Remix)
Tell Your Friends
In The Night
Can’t Feel My Face
I Feel It Coming
The openers: Nav and Gucci Mane opened, and holy hell Gucci was so good and lively that I forgot everything about the other guy’s set. It was the same as his Soundset tracklist, but I could’ve easily listened to it a second time after he was done.
The crowd: Everyone was dressed cute.
Overheard in the crowd: Nothing verbal, but lots of Snapchatting going on.
Random notebook dump: I appreciate how on “Reminder” the Weeknd openly recognizes the irony of being nominated for a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award for a dance song about the anesthetic qualities of cocaine.