The Weeknd, O2 Arena, London, review: this R&B Starboy proves his star power

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"A poster boy for the streaming age": The Weeknd at London's O2 Arena
"A poster boy for the streaming age": The Weeknd at London's O2 Arena Credit: Justin Ng/Music Pics/REX/Shutterstock

Here’s a fact about 27-year-old Canadian RnB star Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd. Until, well, last weekend, Tesfaye held the record for Spotify streams of a new album with 29 million plays of his fourth, 2016’s Starboy, in 24 hours. He’s now been surpassed by Ed Sheeran, but remains a poster boy for the streaming age where shares, hashtags and airplay on algorithmically compiled internet playlists can count for more than relentlessly gigging the toilet circuit.

Tesfaye’s career began with the free release of three mixtapes back in 2011. The buzz these generated was amplified by his enigmatic internet façade and solidified through early collaborations with rappers Drake and Wiz Khalifa. Fast forward six years and he’s a Spotify record-breaking, double Grammy winner on a seven-date UK arena tour. How this Starboy has ascended.

"A stratospheric rise was not undeserved:" The Weeknd performs live Credit: PJP photos/REX/Shutterstock

But at the O2 Arena, at the first of two London dates kicking off his UK tour, Tesfaye proved that such a stratospheric rise was not undeserved.

Opener All I Know set the tone for his trademark rumbling minor-key RnB, pitched somewhere between Bad-era Michael Jackson and the slick, downtempo pop of ex-One Direction man Zayn Malik. Tesfaye’s voice was pristinely buttery and elastic, his tremulous falsetto wringing the emotion from every elegant melody. A live backing band added impressive flourishes – welding metallic funk-soul electronics to Daft Punk collaboration I Feel It Coming and a fizzing guitar solo to The Morning.

The Weeknd performs at the O2 Arena Credit: PJP photos/REX/Shutterstock

The most dogged criticism levelled at Tesfaye’s songs is that they lack variety. Take Earned It, from the Fifty Shades of Grey film. Brooding, rhythmic, eerily lascivious: you could comfortably imagine it sound-tracking a soiree at Christian Grey’s penthouse. Yet it was also dull, the S&M-party equivalent of elevator music. Too much of Tesfaye’s back catalogue replicates this sound.

Still, suspended above him, a kaleidoscopic 60ft star lent the feel of a big, crowd-pleasing pop pageant, and his showman’s charisma was obvious. “London is definitely the loudest crowd,” he cooed, a communal ego caress that kept the crowd bouncing.

Sunnier musical excursions also suited him. Secrets’ light-touch disco-pop tastefully segued into the limbering funk-pop of Can’t Feel My Face, a genuine dancefloor filler with an infectious hook. Elsewhere, the slinking soul of Sidewalks offered a glimpse of a potentially fruitful new direction and was rapturously received.

“I’d die for every one of my ‘xo’ London fans,” Tesfaye exclaimed, by way of thanks. The ‘xo’ was, naturally, a nod to Brand Weeknd, an all-encompassing symbol used to denote his record label, his collaborators and his fans. Just don’t forget the hashtag. 

The Weeknd tours the UK until 14 March. 

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