When the Starboy lands, you can’t avert your eyes.
He appears in smoke and a pyramid of laser beams cast down from a starship-sized mesa of neon tubes and LED screens – kinda hard to miss an entrance like that – and lights the fuse on the song that bears his name, a throbbing, crackling blast of Euro-disco so irresistible you’ll find yourself singing even if you don’t know the words.
And you realize: This is how an international pop megastar like the Weeknd does business in 2017.
Gone are the days when the Weeknd lingered in the shadows of R&B’s fringes, a cipher waiting to be decoded by those his glistening edge didn’t scare off. On Friday he played for a sold-out crowd of 16,500 at Tampa’s Amalie Arena – his second stop headlining the venue in 18 months, and by a wide margin the more eye-popping affair.
"I’m trying to understand," he asked in one of many audience-buttering asides, "is this the biggest motherf---ing party in Florida tonight?"
It’s hard to picture one bigger. Since his mainstream breakthrough in 2015, Abel Tesfaye has gone from white-hot to thermonuclear in the pop-star department – astonishing, considering he’s only been performing live since 2011. Like his Canadian countryman Drake, he’s swinging for the fences with a like-me-need-me thirstiness, and on this tour in support of new album Starboy, the heck if he doesn’t knock it out.
With his signature stratosphere of a hairdo shorn to a high-top, swaddled in an Ontario-appropriate denim vest, the Weeknd spent most of the night working a daggarlike runway jutting two-thirds of the way across the Amalie floor, bouncing and stomping like every song depended on it. It was a setup so enormous that from the right angle, it seemed to fill the arena (although on the other hand, despite 360-degree seating, a fair number of seats appeared to have partially obstructed views, including a big section directly behind the stage).
And this was not a case of all style, no substance. Despite persistent earpiece problems (a stagehand sneaked out for repairs during Secrets; Tesfaye didn’t miss a beat) the Weeknd’s tight, tense tenor was on point as always, despite him moving relentlessly throughout the night. He’s not a dancer, but he shook his white kicks off on Rockin’ and mega-smash Can’t Feel My Face.
He showed little love for his Day One fans, the ones who swooned for his boozy, woozy 2011 mixtape trilogy (the torchy Wicked Games did get a sing-along spin), or even 2013’s underrated Kiss Land. But the onyx heart that powered those projects surfaced in dark, pounding numbers like Low Life and Party Monster, and their NC-17 thrills fluttered up in carnal slow jams like Often, Acquainted and True Colors.
The aura of louche, lurid excess that the Weeknd helped popularize over the past couple of years was reflected in his choice of openers. Atlanta singer-rapper 6lack (pronounced "Black") and Belly, a Palestinian-Canadian singer signed to Tesfaye’s XO label, delivered sets of intoxicating self-psychoanalysis (more 6lack) and thudding, velvet-rope opulence (more Belly).
And would the night’s top undercard, Rae Sremmurd, be where they are without the viral success of artists like the Weeknd? The Mississippi duo owe their breakthrough to the "Mannequin Challenge"-driven streaming success of No. 1 smash Black Beatles, which shares the Weeknd’s sense of head-trippy pop savvy. Brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi danced, leaped and popped off the stage with the heedless effervescence of youth. Slim swiped off his shirt on second song Come Get Her (somebody come get him, amiright?), and the arena buzzed with bass and a cappella rapping on No Type.
The Weeknd brought all his openers back out to perform their hits during his own set – Belly’s Might Not, 6lack’s PRBLMS and of course Black Beatles, a song that had everyone moving, Mannequin Challenge be damned. That might’ve come across as selfish and hit-hoardy, if only Tesfaye didn’t have a murderer’s row of his own monster singles yet to play.
The steamy Earned It simmered to a boiling point, while the snappy, toe-tappy In the Night transformed Amalie into a late-night discotheque. Near the end, before I Feel It Coming, Tesfaye took a moment to take in an extended ovation – a rare moment when he wasn’t singing or dancing, when fans didn’t have the low end of yet another Top 40 hit rattling around their skulls.
And few encore entrances are as jolting as the one the Weeknd delivered, with the entire stage and starship exploding in red light without warning as that nightmarish distortion of The Hills kicked in.
Once again, no one dared avert their eyes from the Starboy, the screaming space demon at the center of the stage. If they did, they’d be missing one of the best live shows in pop music.
-- Jay Cridlin