On Monday night, The Weeknd took on his first ever show at Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most elite venue listed on his fall "Madness" tour, sponsored by his new XO-branded PAX vaporizer. All 18,000 seats began steadily filling up during opening sets by Travi$ Scott and Banks. Scott's "Antidote," especially, was an indicator of the energy that would be constant throughout The Weeknd's two hour performance -- a definitive summary of his almost six year career, punctuated by the string of mega-hits he's had since the last time he went on tour.
After the openers, it took about 30 minutes to assemble the stage upon which Abel Tesfaye would make his dramatic entry. Sudden stabs of guitar led into "Real Life," his opening statement and the lead track on his latest album, Beauty Behind the Madness. His shortened rendition quickly encapsulated the tragedy that has defined his body of work -- the triumph of temptation and the rejection of love, not least that from his own mother.
Somehow, his mother's warnings haven't led to his ruin just yet. "Mama talking that real life," he bellowed, as the platform on which he stood suddenly rose above his band. He quickly rattled off two more of BBTM's non-singles, "Losers" and "Acquainted," both sounding like surefire hits in the stadium setting. The chorus of the latter, "You got me touching in your body," began the uninhibited sing-along that would only get more salacious as the night went on.
Much (but not all) of his recent work showcases a more radio-friendly version of the X-rated MJ descendent. But soon after the sinister bass drop of "High for This," a highlight off his first mixtape, House of Balloons, released from anonymity in 2011, it became clear that his earliest (and darkest) material, combined with his new high-budget stage production, could be translated into sheer excitement. The brooding aggression of "House of Balloons" and the drunken romance of "The Morning," a song about an all-night bender with a stripper, felt more relatable than ever. These were songs made by a reticent personality, a punk-rock kid who hadn't yet realized his own ambitions. But they're not the works of a careless, freewheeling musician. He's always understood the dramatic arc of a pop song, and how a night of illicit thrills can be best epitomized with a crescendoing hook.
On Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd's inner-Michael Jackson, thanks to the disco-tinged productions of Swedish superproducer Max Martin, was brought out brilliantly. Of course, the inspiration came from within, as Abel dropped a grimy low-end cover of "Dirty Diana" on his third 2011 mixtape, Echoes of Silence, which he performed at MSG before going into two Martin-produced BBHM numbers, "In the Night" and "Can't Feel My Face," both unapologetic odes to the King of Pop. He still has a ways to go in terms of his showmanship if he intends to own the comparison -- but, most importantly, his vocals -- the way he surges through the upper octaves upon each sudden change in tempo and his ability to make each subsequent refrain more emphatic than the last, are already in full force.
"I guess it's been a pretty good year for the kid," Abel quietly remarked upon his rendition of his first-ever No. 1 single (only to be upended by himself a few weeks later). "We've come a long way from the Bowery," he continued, before recounting two other mid-sized New York venues he had played three years ago, and it was clear tonight's spectacle would not be the last.
The whole audience expected that the grand finale would be his most successful hit to date, "The Hills," and the chills set in with the almost evil prescience of the opening line: "Your man on the road, he doin' promo..."
We all know what's ahead: A bone-tickling hook ushered in by a deep wash of bass and a horror-movie scream. A row of flames shot up behind him as he, along with the whole stadium, dove right into the most explicit chorus ever to appear on a Billboard No. 1.
The Weeknd's goal, at least for his listeners, has always been excitement, even if he has a masochistic way of proving it. An encore was necessitated seconds after the lights went out following "The Hills," and he went for a classic throwback, "Wicked Games," the HOB track that became his debut single. "Bring the love, baby, I could bring the shame," he sang to a starstruck audience, symbolic of the cathartic mutual exchange that had been taking place all night.