For all intents and purposes, The Weeknd’s catalog is grim. So it only made sense that in the hour before the doors to Raymond James Stadium opened, the skies over Tampa turned gray and unleashed a torrent of rain and lightning, forcing stadium authorities to shut down parking lots and promoters to ultimately cancel a Mike Dean opening set. .
Kaytranada took off, however, and by the time the sun settled beyond the horizon, nearly everyone in the presumably full stadium was in their seats (LiveNation isn’t commenting on the official turnout, but it seemed that there were anywhere between 40,000 to 45,000 people there).
And as stage fog, ambient pre-show music and iridescent blue lights emanated from the massive stage at RayJay’s south end, black clouds seemingly imported from Gotham City, masked a yellow half moon hanging over the stadium.
At 9:20 p.m., the man of the hour, came out masked and immediately launched into four cuts that foreshadowed the EBM synth-flavored dance party that would unfold over the next 100 minutes. As Abel Tesfaye hopped into his 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” the crowd seemed to simultaneously exhale their vapes and begin a giant chant that would carry on through the night.
For the first 20 minutes of the show, it was still unclear whether the 32-year-old would be able to live up to the massive expectations of a full-fledged stadium spectacle, but a Eurythmics-esque break bled into the propellant.” Take My”. Breath,” then Kanye-collab “Hurricane” where 50-foot flames shot from the catwalk and onstage buildings burned as Tesfaye rushed through “The Hills.”
Tesfaye – aided in part by jaw-dropping floodlights that seemed to beam into the International Space Station – made the stadium completely his own from then on. And it wasn’t his first time in space.
Thursday night in Tampa marked 543 days since The Weeknd played the first — and hopefully only — pandemic Super Bowl halftime show. Presumably limited in production by COVID-19, Tesfaye gave this performance his all before the Bucs secured a historic victory in the home stadium.
Homecoming hasn’t been lost on the Toronto-based modern pop icon.
“I wouldn’t sell stadiums without the Tampa Bay Super Bowl,” he said after “Starboy.”
This morning on Twitter, he wrote: “TAMPA BAY will always have a special place in my heart. without this city and the love they showed me at the Super Bowl, I couldn’t do this stadium tour. last night will go down in XO history!”
TAMPA BAY will always have a special place in my heart. without this city and the love they showed me at the Super Bowl, I couldn’t do this stadium tour. last night will go down in XO history! MIAMI I’M COMING FOR YOU! pic.twitter.com/Wr1A7dQ12I
— The Weekend (@theweeknd) August 5, 2022
And almost all of The Weeknd’s story, including the deep cuts, was revisited during the 29-song stadium show featuring a gigantic, red and blue and white moon shining all night long, at the north end of Gateway. ‘The Morning’ and ‘Wicked Games,’ from his industry-shattering 2011 underground mixtape balloon houseperformed and received giant songs from The Weeknd’s day ones, alongside the title track from 2013’s Sleeper Kiss the earth and “I was never there”.
Every song is an anthem when the weekend is on stage, and Tesfaye – who has never seemed out of breath despite playing nearly 30 songs in less than two hours – shines brightly when his fans sing lyrics born in a boudoir on drugs, sex and pushing yourself to physical and emotional extremes.
“Call Out My Name,” the dramatic highlight of the night, found Tesfaye wide-eyed and smiling — much like he was for most of the night — arms open and playing maestro as everyone stadium would fall back to sing lyrics about people falling for each other despite all the justifications telling them not to.
“You have comforted me,” shouted the crowd. “But falling in love with you was my mistake.”
The darkness in The Weeknd’s material is the kind of thing that probably has Nancy Reagan rolling in her grave. There’s no other pop show where nearly 50,000 tweens scream lyrics about pussy popping (“Often”), drug use and an affair (“The Hills”), and sex brutal (“Gasoline”) loudly.
But there’s never been a pop star like Tesfaye, and his Tampa fans have followed him since his first local appearance at Straz Center (2013), at the Amalie Arena where he played in 2015 and 2017. Some may even have been in the house when The Weeknd played Super Bowl LV in front of a half-full stadium reinforced with cardboard cutouts.
There were no cardboard people in the stands on Thursday. Instead, what The Weeknd stood in front of thousands upon thousands of hot bodies and all their imperfections, all singing together.
It was strange to see the buildings on stage burning at certain points in the show, especially on “Faith”, where Tesfaye sings, “I feel everything, from my body to my soul… When I come down, I feel the more alone.”
Fans of The Weeknd belong to a generation that has to do more with less than their parents did, while navigating an increasingly dystopian world that gets hotter and hungrier with each passing year. In Tampa, they live in a state where governors suspend prosecutors they disagree with, and a city where Nazis roam the streets of downtown freely.
It’s a grim situation, and The Weeknd’s music, like it or not, is the appropriate soundtrack. But buried in his songs about addiction and feeling lost, there are strong messages of hope.
Tesfaye piled on those messages in the latter half of the show for songs about self-care (“Out Of Time”) and forgiveness (“Less Than Zero”). And as he sings that he desperately needs help (“After Hours”), The Weeknd always makes space to remind fans that while the world may make them feel lonely, it would figuratively give his life for them. And as those fans sang the lyrics to “Die For You,” you had a feeling they would do the same.
When it gets dark outside, sometimes that’s all you need to get through the night.
How can I make you love me?
I can’t feel my face
Take my breath
Crew Love (Drake)
Low lifespan (future)
Kiss the earth
Out of time
I feel it coming
die for you
Is there anyone else?
I was never there
call my name
save your tears
less than zero