“This ain’t no … sing-along/So girl what you singing for?” crooned Abel Tesfaye, better known as the Weeknd.
Tesfaye was smiling Thursday because the capacity crowd at Lincoln Hall ignored the admonition in the midst of his recent Drake collaboration, “Crew Love.” The fans sang along exuberantly with every word to virtually every song during his one-hour set as if the Canadian-Ethiopian singer were Jay-Z at Madison Square Garden.
In the digital arena, Tesfaye already is a star. He released three free Weeknd albums on his Web site in the last year, each exploring the uncomfortable truths of lust and obsession with disturbing yet strangely addictive music. He was nominated last year for Canada’s top musical honor, the Polaris Prize, and this year he’s on a national tour that includes the Coachella festival in California and Lollapalooza in Grant Park. He’s also been endorsed by Drake, who undoubtedly hears the similarities between the Weeknd’s darkly introspective music and his own.
You could draw a straight line from The Weeknd back through the similarly corrosive late ‘70s albums of Marvin Gaye (“Here My Dear” in particular) and D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece “Voodoo.” In recent years, a subset of R&B and hip-hop has redefined that twisted brand of soul-purging: Drake, Kid Cudi and Kanye West in his “808’s and Heartbreak” mode. These artists share as much in common with the lacerating introspection of indie-rock as they do with the chest-thumping celebration of mainstream R&B and hip-hop.
Tesfaye’s albums package his dysfunction as eerie, disorienting nightmare. He sings in a needy vibrato, often colored by falsetto. He takes the sound of between-the-sheets seduction and turns it into something sinister, singing with heart-felt sweetness about being a heartless rogue.
Though Tesfaye had the raw material to create a nightmarish mood piece in concert, he didn’t go all in as he dialed down the menace and amped up the showmanship. He twisted and leaped to the crescendos in the music, and frequently thrust his microphone in the direction of his fans, which made for some mighty strange sing-alongs.
When he purred, “Trust me, girl, you wanna be high for this,” it sounded like an invitation made at knifepoint. He turned Michael Jackson’s angry “Dirty Diana” inward, its rock-solid riffs replaced by a curtain of noise and then hushed invocations. In “The Birds, Pt. 1,” the narrator warned a lover not to get too attached because he’s a callous vagabond incapable of staying faithful.
The music veered between dissonance and an uneasy stillness. Goths such as the Cure were referenced in the sobbing “The Knowing” and Siouxsie and the Banshees in “House of Balloons.” Guitars rarely punched out standard fills or riffs, instead channeling static and conjuring chilling sound effects. Beats dodged in and out, an imperfect soundtrack for dancing and fist-pumping -- not that it deterred the audience from doing exactly that.
For an encore, Tesfaye sang “Wicked Games,” about a character so emotionally hollowed out that he seeks unsatisfying refuge in anonymous sex and drugs. As Tesfaye parsed degrees of shame and degradation, the fans still sang along, but their hero was in no mood to cheerlead anymore. When finally the lights faded to black, Tesfaye slipped away behind a curtain and was gone.
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