In a way, the pop star born Abel Tesfaye’s career arc can be illustrated by his three appearances at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
In 2012, he was making one of his first live appearances as The Weeknd, the mystery man behind the acclaimed House of Balloons mixtape, and the returns were pretty spotty, with Tesfaye still appearance an uncomfortable, highly imperfect performer. “Are these songs meant for a festival? Is Abel made for the stage?” a Pigeons & Planes review of the performance asked rhetorically.
Tesfaye’s 2015 return to Coachella was much better received — by then, The Weeknd’s early hype had faded somewhat, but his catalog was expanding and his stage presence was coming together. Playing opposite Saturday night’s proper headliner Jack White, The Weeknd captured most of the evening’s buzz, in large part due to a surprise appearance from Kanye West. It was still comfortably before Tesfaye would stage his coup within pop’s mainstream with “Can’t Feel My Face,” but it proved that interest in The Weeknd was still high.
Now, on Friday night (Apr. 13), Abel made it a trilogy — appropriately enough — with his most successful Coachella performance yet. Playing the proper headline slot for the first time, The Weeknd delivered a set of hits and fan favorites spanning his early days to the release of his My Dear Melancholy EP just two weeks earlier, toggling seamlessly between eras and stunning somewhat with just how many hits he has to cull from. And Tesfaye knows how to play the part, too — he’s a pro now at working the crowd, hyping his band, interacting with his songs and even offering a little two-step on occasion. No one will confuse him for Beyonce anytime soon, but he’s not the awkward, chubby crooner in a Raiders hat that first graced the Coachella stage anymore, either.
Tellingly, no special guests were brought out during The Weeknd’s Friday set — even Kendrick Lamar, who’d graced the same stage not an hour earlier to perform a pair of songs with TDE labelmate SZA, was absent for The Weeknd’s opening performance of the duo’s smash Black Panther collab “Pray for Me.” This was The Weeknd’s hard-earned headlining moment, and one not particularly lacking in extra hype — no need for another Kanye cameo when Abel is now essentially on Yeezy’s level of popularity.
— billboard (@billboard) April 14, 2018
The set list for the night was well-selected, heavy on hits but never overwhelming, and with some absolutely inspired transitions — like the closing cacophany of “Pray for Me” seamlessly giving way to the distortion squall that opens “Starboy,” or should’ve-been-a-Starboy-single “Secrets” morphing into the pop classic “Can’t Feel My Face” after the second chorus. House of Balloons got its own gratifying sort of mini-set, with Tesfaye logically dedicating “The Morning” to the great state of California, and teasing the set’s title track with a short dip into its intro,
As for My Dear Melancholy — Abel got there eventually, but he didn’t belabor the point as much as you might have expected. Five of the set’s six songs were played, but not until the set was already
The 20-plus-song set ended with The Weeknd’s Hot 100-topping 2015 single “The Hills,” with flames shooting out of the set’s backdrop — a giant head with a changing face that sporadically resembled Tesfaye, looking like an ancient statue poking out from among the ruins — from the song’s opening synth blasts. The fact that Abel was able to end with such a captivating, unsettling sort of romantic horror ballad as his crowd-pleasing signature smash told you everything you needed to know about what he’d become in the six years since his first Coachella appearance: a musical icon, almost entirely on his own terms — and indeed, a motherf–kin’ starboy.