You come expecting to see a Toronto megastar who has reshaped the sound of global pop. Instead, it’s a two-for-one deal. On this second of two sold-out shows, the Weeknd – Abel Tesfaye – comes packing extra star-power: a cameo from his former mentor Drake. Just two weeks after the final night of his own O2 run, Drake is here to cheer on “my lil’ bro, my homie”. He fondly recalls hearing an early demo from the Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House of Balloons. (“One of my top five albums of all time!”) Cue bear hug, in which Drake crushes Tesfaye.
It’s hilarious, how yin-and-yang the two are: Drake garrulous and Tiggerish, dressed in khaki, a motivational speaker from special forces. The Weeknd, meanwhile, is pop’s biggest introvert, his partly hidden gold chain the only hint at the wealth his songs have accrued for him (well, his songs are littered with sports cars and “a table cut from ebony” too).
Poker-faced, Tesfaye confines himself to arena platitudes about how “night two” of “London, UK” is louder than “night one”, and focuses on crooning his seductive siren songs. He started off as a shadowy margin-dweller, making eerie, indie-leaning R&B about sex on drugs. For the past five years, much R&B has assiduously reworked his sound – jaded, minimal, lost-sounding – while Tesfaye himself has been busy reinventing himself as a “a motherfuckin’ starboy” in thrall to Michael Jackson. Since the success of 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and the more recent, even poppier Starboy (2016), he is now the kind of star who can headline arenas, hiring set-designer-to–the-stars Es Devlin to construct him a giant light-up facsimile of a paper aeroplane, hovering artistically overhead.
There remains some tension between this diffident lotus-eater who’s taken so many drugs – or so he claims in one song – that he “might not make it this time” (Might Not), and big-room entertainment. On balance, what Tesfaye lacks in charisma and moves, he makes up for in intensity and dramatic sound design. All the songs sound subtly retooled; even well-known highlights like Can’t Feel My Face are sleeker and more bombastic than the versions in your head – a good trick, if it is one. It could just be the arena acoustics.
Pivotal lines are delivered with portent or – in the case of “when I’m fucked up, that’s the real me”, from epic closer The Hills – with a raised middle finger; Tesfaye pogos at crucial moments, like during the fast and furious False Alarm. The perennial dilemma of whether a huge pop act is miming or not dissipates in one dynamic croon on Party Monster, two songs in. Tesfaye’s sweet pipes are the real deal.
But it’s a curious business, spending the evening of International Women’s Day with the Weeknd. Women outnumber men. The joy with which these gangs of girlfriends writhe and sing these lubricious songs at each other is obvious, and infectious.
The filthier the lyrics, the better, too. “Baby, I can make that pussy rain/ Often,” sings Tesfaye, about one particular drug-fuelled squelch-fest. Thousands of people chant the gory details along with him.
From Beatlemania on, tutting commentators have tended to read the female fan experience as a passive one – idolised men getting on with the serious business of performing while a harem of adoring females screams on. But since the 70s, reams of weighty cultural studies have junked this notion of herd-like passivity. From making message posters in your room with your friends, to sharing group selfies on Instagram, it’s all creative engagement that bonds. Female pleasure is female pleasure, no matter its source.
Spend enough headphone time with the Weeknd, though, and it’s hard not to think of Patrick Bateman, a wolf in something unostentatious from Tesfaye’s Starboy clothing line. If you want to “ride the wave” with the Weeknd, Often seems to suggest, you are probably going to have to go down on his crew too. It’s your prerogative, of course – but now, the idea of women as disposable dick-wipes doesn’t just permeate hip-hop, but mainstream R&B as well, a coarsening of the discourse that leaves feminist Weeknd fans with a pussy hat full of cognitive dissonance.
Probably best, then, to focus on the tunes. The ice-cold back catalogue can get samey, but now, there are all the revelations from Starboy – not least the pair of recent Daft Punk assisted bon-bons. I Feel It Coming is so tenderly delivered, you almost believe Tesfaye has your best interests at heart.