Review: The Weeknd at Hollywood Forever

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The buzzy story out of Saturday night’s Hollywood Forever set by the haunting, villainous R&B act the Weeknd was that Drake came by for an extended guest vocal slot. But Drake’s more interesting turn on the mike came right afterward.

‘I remember the first time I heard the Weeknd,’ he said in a quick soliloquy to a rapt sold-out audience (save for the one attendee who tried to throw a drink at him). ‘I was in Toronto, and it was raining. I heard two songs, ‘What You Need’ and ‘The Party & the After Party,’ and I thought, ‘This is greatest thing to happen to music in a long time.’ ‘


Drake is known for many moods -- self-regard and self-loathing among them. But he’s not usually humble and spotlight-surrendering. That makes his praise for Abel Tesfaye’s ensemble all the more interesting. Did we just watch a major new star get made this weekend?

Everything about the Weeknd suggests insularity and silver-tongued viciousness. The act’s three free albums are an unfeeling hellscape of meaningless, vampiric sex and drug use set to productions as shimmery and surface as the glass tables that pop up in Tesfaye’s lyrics. This stuff is what Rip from ‘Less Than Zero’ has as Muzak in his apartment.

But at Hollywood Forever, Tesfaye revealed that his sound was not just an emotionally-dispiriting party trick. From the first notes of ‘High for This,’ one thing was certain -- the guy could croon.

In an era of ubquitous pitch correction and processing, his falsetto runs and flickers of melisma were refreshingly expert yet human. His voice is nimble but not especially powerful, but he knows it and stays in the upper atmosphere of each song, less owning the sonic space than just checking in for the night.

Even better, he figured out ways to translate his albums’ laptop claustrophobia into a meaty live band. His monster of a drummer and his atmosphere-eliciting guitarist thickened the arrangements while staying true to the barely there synthetic qualities of songs such as ‘The Morning’ and ‘Outside.’ When the depersonalized 808s (you know, those) dropped in on big moments such as ‘High for This,’ they brought the curious scenario of a crowd’s group singalong about feeling totally disconnected from feeling.

One had to gulp a bit upon hearing thousands of people singing the song’s lyrics, promising that an impending sex act would be so intense that you should probably blunt it with drugs. But pop audiences will be smart enough not to take Tesfaye’s on-record worldview to heart -- music’s had rogues as long as there’s been music.


Maybe in an age of lowered expectations and rapacious late capitalism, even partying comes soaked in nihilism today. But when Tesfaye said the chance to perform in a graveyard in L.A. was ‘a celebration,’ the discord was a tiny beam of hope for a future, suggesting the Weeknd’s after-party is about to get a whole lot longer.


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-- August Brown