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PHOTOS: High For This—The Weeknd at SAP Center

In Music
The Weeknd: Feeling the love at The Shark Tank in San Jose. Photo by Jessica Perez.

The Weeknd: Feeling the love at The Shark Tank in San Jose. Photo by Jessica Perez.

The lights went out and the cell phone screens lit up, as Abel Tesfaye—b.k.a. The Weeknd—took the stage at The SAP Center Sunday night. Under a brooding, red-light-district-red spotlight, the mad king of R&B appeared—standing inside a cage and behind a string of velvet ropes—like a cordoned off work of art, or a solitary celeb waltzing up to the V.I.P. entrance of an exclusive club. The room erupted in applause as nearly every person on the floor of the arena struggled to snap a picture.

Though the practice of fans taking photos with their phones at concerts is ubiquitous these days, the collective action felt somehow more appropriate here. It was reminiscent of a crowd gathered around a fiery car crash, desperate to document the conflagration, hoping against hope that they might catch sight of some carnage.

Before Tesfaye and his three-piece backing band had finished their second number, a fight broke out between two women a few rows back from the stage.

Over the next hour and a half, the Canadian singer led the packed Shark Tank to sublime highs and exquisite lows—pausing occasionally to praise the crowd for their support, giving props specifically to San Jose, and pledging to come back on his next tour.


Photo by Jessica Perez.

“I never been here before,” he said a little more than halfway through his set. “But you guys are showing so much love. I don’t think I’m gonna skip this city ever… ever…” Predictably, the arena exploded—demonstrating the acoustic properties of the Tank, a venue known for amplifying crowd noise to ear-splitting levels. “It’s been a really, really fucking good year.”

From there he launched into “Earned It.” The song appears on his latest record—2015’s wildly successful Beauty Behind The Madness, which has earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year—as well as featuring prominently on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.

It was a reminder of just how big a year Tesfaye is having. After self-releasing a trio of expertly produced, guerilla-marketed mixtapes in 2010 and 2011, the man known primarily as the Weeknd has steadily accumulated a following. However, until this year, that following had been largely composed of hip, omnivorous audiophiles—just as likely to be spinning Joy Division and Arcade Fire LPs on their home turntables, as streaming Future and Kendrick Lamar on the commute to work.

His major label debut, Kiss Land, drew a middling response from critics, who weren’t as floored as they had been by the utter newness of his Trilogy mixtape. Kiss Land didn’t catch fire commercially, either—likely due to Tesfaye taking a deep dive into his darker influences. One track sounded as if it sampled the enigmatic and critically loved Portishead.

But then came the Fifty Shades track in late 2014. That was followed this year by “Can’t Feel My Face”—the catchiest song about cocaine dependence ever recorded (sorry, Eric Clapton)—and “The Hills,” the catchiest song about gloomy, blacked-out, no-strings hookups ever recorded.


Photo by Jessica Perez.

Tesfaye saved his two biggest hits to date for the very end of his set, shimmying to “Can’t Feel My Face” and then weaving in and out of a forest of flaming pikes during his climactic rendition of “The Hills”—thus recalling the song’s video, which is little more than a slow-mo tracking shot of the singer, walking calmly away from a flipped-over and on-fire sedan, leaving his two female companions behind to scream in anguish in the early morning light. All of this is to say that those hoping for a conflagration, got just that.

Then the lights went out and Tesfaye left the stage—only to be reminded of San Jose’s love for him, as a deafening roar once again filled the SAP Center. He returned a minute or so later, and, having played all of his biggest hits, did one for the die hards: “Wicked Games” from his debut mixtape, House of Balloons.

The encore was a reminder of where Tesfaye started, and why the Weeknd has climbed so high. Before headlining an international tour, before appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone with his Bob Marley-meets-Flock of Seagulls mane, Tesfaye was just a brooding kid with a great voice. Those very first Weeknd tracks resonated so strongly among critics and the music blogosphere because of the depth they demonstrated.

Tesfaye was using an incredibly diverse musical vocabulary to construct his songs. There were the gooey trip-hop textures of Massive Attack; the chilling, observational lyricism of Nas (and the boom-bap drum kits to match); the sexual tenacity and smouldering croon of R. Kelley; the atmospheric awareness of My Bloody Valentine; and, of course, the soaring range and tone of Michael Jackson.

The Weeknd is all of these things and more, which is why it was so enthralling to witness Tesfaye and his band at work Sunday night. Never hungry for the spotlight, Tesfaye often disappeared into the darkness, allowing the band to pile up shoegazey squalls of cacophonous fuzz, or pausing while his guitarist ripped through smokey, bluesy solos.

In a place many pop stars would fill with backup dancers, Tesfaye relied on live drums and lysergic visuals—including undulating visualizations of waveforms, akin to the cover of Unknown Pleasures; jagged CGI topography, reminiscent of the craggy, digital peaks and valleys filling the liner notes of Kid A; and, perhaps most appropriate, a pulsating orb that resembled both an imminent supernova explosion and an ovum, under siege from millions of gametes.

The graphic served as one final reminder that, in the end, what really makes the Weeknd pop is his unabashed amalgamation of sex and psychedelia. In this sense, the leadoff track on House of Balloons, “High For This,” seems less a provocative proclamation and more a mission statement.

Check out the entire photo gallery, featuring shots of Travis Scott and Halsey. Click here.

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