Canadian singer and songwriter Abel Tesfaye emerges with a brighter sound, same dark demons
In past years, Abel Tesfaye largely operated in the shadows, self-releasing mixtapes littered with murky, emotionally distant songs while remaining largely off public radar. Now, with a pair of hit albums and a string of chart-topping hits, the Canadian singer and songwriter, who records and performs as the Weeknd, is something of a household name, capable of filling arenas for concerts, as he did at the Schottenstein Center on Tuesday.
Considering the shift, it's appropriate Tesfaye kicked off his 80-minute performance beneath a spotlight, a glowing tractor beam drawing the musician up from a trap door beneath the stage as a tight, three-piece band locked into the title track from his most recent full-length, Starboy, released late last year.
Where early albums were dark and moody, littered with tales of drug-fueled, anonymous sex, Starboy has a grander, more expansive, mainstream sound befitting the Weeknd's new arena stomping grounds.
Of course, Tesfaye hasn't completely abandoned the reckless lecher at his core, as he admitted on “Reminder.” “I just won a new award for a kids’ show/Talking about her face humming off a bag of blow,” he crooned, referencing his breakout hit, “Can't Feel My Face.” “I’m like, ‘Goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice/Goddamn, bitch, I am not a bleach boy.’” A few beats later, in the same song, he tossed off a casually sexist, arguably racist remark that doubled down on this admitted impurity: “Got a sweet Asian chick, she go low mane (mein),” which, ick.
It helps somewhat that Tesfaye delivers even his most debased, sour lyrics in a sweet, pliable tenor, drawing listeners close while a string of insecure, promiscuous characters searches for release in some combination of chemicals and the “Kama Sutra.” “Let me see that ass,” he cooed on “Wicked Games,” an early song he remastered and rendered in widescreen here, later adding, “bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain.” On the more recent and less compelling “Party Monster,” he appeared to pick up action the following morning. “Woke up by a girl,” he sang atop a synth-heavy beat that ambled along in a drug-addled stupor. “I don't even know her name.”
At times, Tesfaye embodied characters content to let these vices win out. “I might not make it,” he offered amid the steamy, R&B-tinged “Might Not,” showing little interest in slowing down. On “Can't Feel My Face,” a buoyant, infectious pop gem, he belted the line “she'll be the death of me” with the verve of a man joyously sliding headfirst into the grave.
With Starboy, Tesfaye does find himself safely ensconced in a new income tax bracket (the title track name-drops the Bentley Mulsanne, a high-end auto with a base price north of $360,000), and the high-tech stage set reflected this new reality.
The musician spent a bulk of the concert in the middle of a long, obelisk-shaped catwalk that stretched 50 yards into the audience. Above him hung a geometric spaceship that appeared modeled on a classic paper plane, rimmed with lights and covered with panels that doubled as video screens. One moment, the craft would hover above Tesfaye, painting him in red and blue hues, and the next it would tilt at a 45-degree angle, as though threatening to take off and blast its way through the arena's roof.
Though a singular figure in the modern pop world, Tesfaye, who trimmed his once-trademark, Basquiat-esque locks in favor of a closer-cropped 'do more reminiscent of “Seinfeld's” Kramer, peppered his set with musical nods to the Motown era (the steamy “Earned It”), R. Kelly (“Angel,” a stripped-down, disarmingly straightforward ballad), Micheal Jackson (“In the Night” clearly inherited DNA from “Billie Jean”) and even Tears for Fears (“Secrets” briefly ducked beneath “Pale Shelter”).
Tesfaye also called upon the occasional helping hand, including rapper Nav, who opened the concert and returned to chip in a verse on by-the-numbers rags-to-riches tale “Some Way,” and the Daft Punk robots, who, while not present in the arena, assisted in crafting the shimmering “I Feel It Coming.”
The song, which closed out the main set, found Tesfaye embodying a more sympathetic character, consoling a woman left shattered by a failed romance. “You don't have to run,” he sang. “I know what you've been through.” In part, one would estimate based on everything that landed before it, because his kind has so often been the cause of this pain.