Halfway through his headlining set at Super Bowl LV, with the opening strains of his “I Feel It Coming” smash audible in the background and yet another round of fireworks about to light up the Tampa night, The Weeknd briefly broke superstar character to give a little chuckle and a near-wink to the camera. I know, he seemed to be saying. It’s crazy, right?
It certainly is, when you bother to remember that a decade ago the artist born Abel Tesfaye had just started recording subterranean R&B mixtapes north of the border, with lyrics (and grooves) too filthy for radio, let alone for a viewership of 100 million. Back then, The Weeknd was purposefully anonymous, but now his face (when not hidden behind a cartoonish amount of bandages) is nearly as universally recognized as his songs — which include several of the biggest hits of the last 10 years, following a mid-’10s pivot to pop that saw him make a bald-faced play for star status without either falling on his face or falling out with his old fans. It was an unlikely journey to TV’s biggest stage, to say the least.
It’s one that Tesfaye was more than willing to relive for the folks at home on Sunday night (Feb. 7), though, as he ran through many of those smashes in a 14-minute set that presented a pretty convincing argument for him having one of the strongest catalogs of any modern pop hitmaker. Running around Raymond James Stadium in his now-signature red sequin jacket, with the million-watt lights of his After Hours era’s music videos guiding his way at every turn, it probably was a pretty good preview of Abel’s eventual Vegas Years: one of the era’s premier entertainers playing the hits, smiling and shuffling and determined to have more even fun performing than anyone watching.
Still, you never forgot exactly who you were watching. With his first two full songs — after a “Call out My Name” intro welcomed him to the stage via robot demon choir — he played “Starboy,” whose pre-chorus includes Tesfaye admiring his girlfriend for her ability to snort large amounts of cocaine, and “The Hills,” a straight up sexual horror movie with the singer gleefully playing the slasher. Even “Can’t Feel My Face,” the wedding-ready pop-funk banger that finally earned Tesfaye the MJ comparisons he so desperately sought, sounded more claustrophobic than ever when performed in a a backstage light maze, with the performer ultimately overwhelmed by a gang of bandaged doppelgangers. But no matter how strange the song or staging, The Weeknd’s showman energy never wavered, always acting as if there was no real difference between him and shirtless Adam Levine performing “Sugar” two years ago. Considering all three of those Weeknd songs were also Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s, maybe there isn’t.
If there was one fault to be found with the performance — outside of occasional sound issues that even Tesfaye’s wail couldn’t pierce through — it might be a lack of truly stunning moments. Tesfaye said he didn’t invite any guests for his halftime show because there “wasn’t any room to fit it in the narrative”; given that whatever narrative there was primarily focused on his own evolution to solo superstardom, it’s not a surprising conclusion for him to reach. But it did rob the mini-set of perhaps a welcome midway jolt to not have any of the artists who have played supporting roles of various sizes in his journey — a list that ranges from Drake to Lana Del Rey to Daft Punk to Kenny G — make an appearance; a different energy from Tesfaye’s trademark monomania could’ve gone a long way.
Longtime fans were gifted to one true “whoa” bit, however: A brief dip into the title track to The Weeknd’s House of Balloons title track, a Siouxsie and the Banshees-quoting, vertigo-inducing anthem of decadence and decay that arguably marked the defining jam of The Weeknd’s exhilarating, unsettling early years. Played at marching band tempo with Abel now flanked by a small army of bandaged dressalikes, the song gradually sped up into the unmistakeable driving speed of the still-ubiquitous “Blinding Lights,” eventually exploding into a scene that was part “Another Brick in the Wall,” part “Real Slim Shady” and part 100-yard mosh pit, an incredible victory lap moment for a true modern classic. And like all of The Weeknd’s 10-year career to this point, the transition was smoother than you’d expect.