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In just under a decade, Abel Testefaye went from near homelessness to performing at the Super Bowl and releasing a greatest hits album that immediately became the most streamed album of all time on Spotify. His story is one of the more inspiring tales of celebrity this past decade that culminated as the world was falling apart. “After Hours” was one of the biggest albums of 2020, and “Blinding Lights” is now only behind “The Twist” for Billboard’s biggest song of all time. Everything about his career was working perfectly leading up to this performance, but everything else about this situation was working against him.
The global pandemic makes everything about performance just that much harder, no way around that. Many of the previous performers were also dance heavy, including Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga, which is something The Weeknd doesn’t do a lot of. Last year was the biggest example of this with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Shakira’s dancing ability has always been just as important as her singing, and Jennifer Lopez doesn’t even sing all of the studio versions of her hits, so she doesn’t bring a lot musically to a performance. The Weeknd had to bring people from the mentality of it being about the theatrics of the previous few years to the music and songs themselves, and he succeeded.
Throughout the nine song performance, there were many musical additions that added to just him singing the songs. The haunting, robotic choir starting off the performance by belting out his 2018 hit, “Call Out My Name,” was an incredible way to start out the show. In order to transition into “Blinding Lights” down on the field, he brought back a 2011 song off of his debut mixtape, “House of Balloons,” for his day one fans that love his darker music. Actually, every transition between songs was perfectly sequenced. The orchestral additions and choir coming back in and adding to the ballad “Earned It” made it sound even better than the studio version.
The set designs were really fascinating as well. The show started off with The Weeknd in his fancy sports car under a makeshift version of the Vegas lights before transitioning into the more traditional stage setting. Another highlight is the light tunnel in which he performed his chart topping hit, “Can’t Feel My Face.” It would’ve been perfect if he actually went through a full maze-like tunnel instead of just one separate room, but that stage was still great. Ending the show on the field with a plethora of masked characters referencing earlier in the story Abel’s telling with this album cycle was a perfect, cathartic ending for this album cycle.
Even the setlist covered most of his hits that most people would want to hear. He performed four of his number one hits, three more top five tracks, and another top ten hit. The only track that wasn’t a top ten hit was his throwback to 2011 that was mentioned above, and that was the track that got the most love on social media. It was weird to hear PG versions of these songs, as most of them are about sex and drugs. However, there was still enough darkness for his fans. Having one of the first lines said at the Super Bowl be, “Cut that ivory into skinny pieces, then she clean it with her face,” equally pleased fans that knew about it and slipped by people that weren’t paying close attention.
This performance wasn’t without problems, though. Even though his performance was musically the best since at least Lady Gaga, there was a lack of the extra something that a Super Bowl performance normally has. Like I mentioned above, the pandemic clearly affected things, but they still didn’t go up and above the expectations most people had. The mixing on the performance was also flat out bad. His vocals were constantly getting buried in the mix, making it hard to hear him for the majority of the performance. Instead of his voice soaring over the instrumentals, there were times where it sounded like he was singing underwater.
Overall, the performance was still one of the best Super Bowl performances in a few years. It obviously won’t be one of the best ever, especially with iconic performances from people like Michael Jackson and Prince; but it was definitely a step up from people like Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake’s performances the past few years. There were a few big flaws that kept the performance from being something special, but it proved that The Weeknd has completed his transformation from a faceless R&B crooner to a full-fledged superstar.
For those optimistic enough, there is an “After Hours” tour announced for the beginning of 2022 that is making its way through Milwaukee with tickets currently on sale.