Review: Pop stardom secured, the Weeknd plays hard-to-get at the Forum

A harsh, grimly worded account of one man’s absorption into the moral decay of Los Angeles, “The Hills” by the Weeknd is hardly bureau-of-tourism material.

The song, punctuated with horror-movie screams, has nothing to contribute to a positive self-image; you can’t imagine anyone, or any place, wanting to be defined by it.

Unless, that is, you were at the Forum on Tuesday night for the first of two sold-out Weeknd concerts. Then you didn’t have to imagine it.

“L.A., this is our anthem!” the Weeknd called out before launching into the final chorus of “The Hills,” and instead of arguing against the song’s troubling message, the crowd promptly went bananas.


Could there be a more vivid demonstration of the Weeknd’s newfound pop stardom? Once a shadowy figure lurking on the margins of R&B, this Canadian singer and songwriter (born Abel Tesfaye) ascended to the A-list in 2015 with a string of inescapable singles, including “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” perhaps the coldest, darkest song to reach No. 1 since Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” (which the Weeknd regularly performs).

His album “Beauty Behind the Madness” topped the charts too, and this week earned several Grammy nominations, including one for album of the year. Now he’s someone who inspires dreams of proximity in his fans, even when getting too close seems dangerous.

Indeed, as “The Hills” illustrates, the Weeknd hasn’t lost his menace. Though “Beauty Behind the Madness” both deepens and cleans up his sound, thanks in part to help from a crew of Top 40 hitmakers, it’s still plenty forbidding.


“Tell ‘em this boy wasn’t meant for loving,” he sings to start the album in “Real Life,” which also opened Tuesday’s show. Even “Can’t Feel My Face,” as slick as any Katy Perry tune, compares a relationship to a cocaine binge — an exclamation with a warning tucked inside it.

The concert carried through the Weeknd’s mixed feelings about opening himself up. An arena-scaled production with elaborate lighting and video elements — as well as all 14 songs from “Beauty Behind the Madness” — it showed his eagerness to compete on the level of stars whose personalities matter as much as their music.

He danced a bit in “Losers” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” and at one point he did the thing where he pretended to be interested in which side of the room was louder. That kind of stagecraft would’ve been unthinkable for the Weeknd just a few years ago. Ditto the strength of his singing in “Shameless,” which revealed how far he’s come since a shaky performance at Coachella in 2012 raised the possibility that he might not be suited to work outside a dimly lighted studio.

But just because he’s now capable of connecting doesn’t mean he’s willing. For much of the show the Weeknd, backed by a three-piece band, positioned himself behind a screen whose flashing images kept him safely out of reach. The brisk pace of the set — one song quickly moving into the next, with a few medleys of older tunes thrown in — felt like another way of fending off anything that might’ve unsettled a fixed idea of what the Weeknd is about.

Yet that unsettling has already happened; it’s what makes “Beauty Behind the Madness” so impressive, and what led his fans to join him for that haunted Hollywood anthem.

“I love you,” he told the crowd as he walked offstage at the end of the show, and though you wanted to believe him, you weren’t sure you should.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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