On the title track of his 2016 album Starboy, Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, asserts, “I’m a motherfucking starboy.” After the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and in eight other countries, he’s right.
The consecutive success of the Canadian crooner’s last two albums (2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness was No. 1 for three weeks) catapulted him from the fringes to the top of pop alongside undisputed stars Drake, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. But while Spotify streams are the currency for popstar sovereignty—The Weeknd held the record for most streams in a single day in November, a triumph recently overtaken by Ed Sheeran—the starboy is still green when it comes to performing live.
Tesfaye’s Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour, which launched in late February in Sweden and continues through June, came to London’s O2 arena Tuesday night, comfortably filling the 20,000-capacity arena.
On stage, Tesfaye has the swagger of a newly crowned pop king. He employs it to rouse the crowd to jump between songs, and his audience is flawlessly compliant. Just like on his records, he punches swiftly through the key changes from somber “The Hills,” performed in a coolly unaffected lower register, to high falsetto in “I Feel It Coming,” the electro-dance number famously produced by French duo Daft Punk.
But for a tour of this size and scope, Tesfaye’s enchanting voice falls short. The stage is futuristic, featuring a visually-striking triangular Death Star-esque structure floating above the band and a long runway that extends out into the crowd. The singer spends much of the show performing on this catwalk, rarely returning to the main stage to interact with his musicians. The structure above him, you hope, will be used within a performance—like Drake’s revolving giant globe the luminates the arena on his Boy Meets World Tour or Beyoncé’s water-filled runway that adds dramatic effect to “Freedom,” on her Formation World Tour—but it never is. “It floats uselessly…”
The music is the highlight of the show. Tesfaye has amassed a solid catalogue of tracks that belie the fact he has only released three records. The set is heavily comprised of songs from the Starboy album, which is also his most accomplished to date, so it is a treat to hear “Secrets” and especially the glutinously tongue-in-cheek “Ordinary Life” live. These are interspersed with earlier hits led by the seductive Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack song “Earned It” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” the bombastic floorfiller that dominated radio stations in 2015.
However, the sequencing of the set list, like the staging, needs work. The set feels disjointed, opening with “All I Know” instead of one of his many immediately recognizable hits. “Starboy” and “Can’t Feel My Face” are inexplicably performed mid-show when they could easily bookend the performance. Instead, Tesfaye closes with “The Hills,” by far his best-known track, though perhaps too solemn to end a show.
Tesfaye’s pristine recordings are deceptive; his live show is rough and unpolished. The foundation is there, though—with more experience on stage and finessing of his set list, his live show will be as instantly entrancing as his songs.
The Weeknd’s Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour continues globally through June 9. He headlines Wireless festival, London, in July.
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