The ghost of the artist who goes by the name of The Weeknd has been haunting my psyche for months. By ghost, I mean five albums worth of dark, brooding beats coupled with outrageous lyrics sung in a high melodic voice reminiscent of Michael Jackson. I’ve been listening obsessively to The Weeknd's music since late this summer at about the time he was beginning to receive much publicity around his new album, The Beauty Behind The Madness.
Around this time, I wrote an article about him and bought a ticket to his recent concert at the Bell Centre in Montreal, which took place on November 24th, 2015 and is part of his Fall Madness Tour. In a matter of days after the tickets went on sale, the venue was sold out with a total over 18,780 people who attended the show.
I not only wanted to enjoy the concert, but I was interested in observing how the production was executed, how his songs would turn out live and if his artistry and musicianship held up. I wanted insights on this mysterious character, The Weeknd. I also had no idea what his fans were like.
Expect a well-dressed and very young, mostly female crowd
The fans were of a median age of about 21, well behaved and well dressed. The Weeknd has become a bit of a fashion icon with his modeling of Kanye West’s fashion line Yeezy in GQ Magazine, and hanging out with the hottest models around. He even performed at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show last month.
Needless to say, the Weeknd is very popular with the ladies, but I didn’t expect the majority of attendees to be women. There were also some definite groupies in attendance.
A good warm up by Travis Scott, malgré the autotune
The show was warmed up by a wild and energetic Travis Scott, who sang entirely in autotune, an overused piece of technology that corrects pitch when people sing out of tune, but can also make a human voice sound like a keyboard. This is a video I took at the show:
I was unimpressed with his musical talent, but many of the young men in attendance seemed more enthused about Travis Scott than The Weeknd. Travis crowd surfed, dove into the audience, got everyone’s cell phone lights shining and swaying, and he didn’t play for too long, which was nice.
The Weeknd has an incredible voice and is all class
The qualities that transpired most for me about The Weeknd's performance were class and professionalism. He sang dexterously in Arabic-style melisma, his vocals were clean and powerful, and he is indeed an accomplished singer. Here is a video I took of The Weeknd singing "Earned it" in Montreal:
Compared with Travis Scott’s performance, the Weeknd was more like watching a jazz singer in a formal concert hall. There was no wild flailing and writhing onstage, no chest beating nor yelling. The Weeknd is also a pretty good dancer too, although limited in his repertoire: I give him credit for his lightening fast Michael Jackson-esque spins.
Major criticism: static playlist and over use of backing tracks
I searched recent previous set lists to see if The Weeknd had been playing the exact same songs every night and in the same order. And I’m sad to say that although this is a relatively standard practice in the pop world, The Weeknd is guilty. Part of the reason for this, is the extensive use of backing tracks at his shows, even though he has a 3-piece band.
A large percentage of modern musical acts use backing tracks, which is recorded music that is played in the background at live shows. It’s similar to karaoke, except both the band and the singer play overtop of the track. One reason for the use of backing tracks is the music would be impractical to perform live, and it helps make the songs sound more like the album, and it accentuates the fullness of the sound.
In my opinion, there are several problems with this:
- The artist is locked into their pre-defined set list
- After hearing an album countless times and having it practically memorized, many fans want to see the artist re-interpret the songs live, rather than hear the album played exactly the same again.
- Backing tracks can muddy the sound, create even worse of an echo in arena setting and drown out the artistry involved in actually playing instruments or singing live.
- There are countless talented musicians and back-up vocalists who would be thrilled to be hired to go on tour with a pop star for a nominal fee, instead of resorting to use these backing tracks.
- You lose the playful unpredictable quality of a live performance and the opportunity to improvise, try out a new song/cover or take audience requests.
The Weeknd sings in French
There was only one moment of musical improvisation, and this was one of the most magical and interactive moments of the night.
After a few words with his audience, The Weeknd sang the chorus of his song called, “Montreal” from his 2011 Echoes of Silence album, where he borrows a few lines from French singer France Gall’s, “Laisse tomber les filles”:
"Laisse tomber les filles, un jour c’est toi qu’on laissera. Oui j’ai pleuré, mais ce jour-là je ne pleurerai pas, je ne pleurerai pas."
Notice France Gall’s version which is up-tempo and cheeky, while The Weekend’s version is impossibly sad and melodic.
Improvisation is everything
Jazz and hip hop artists, and many bands use improvisation at live concerts to increase the creative, dynamic and spontaneous qualities of playing live.
The Weeknd often uses "freestyle" or stream-of-consciousness singing when composing vocal tracks for his album songs. The 8-min long song Gone is entirely freestyle, along with much of his 2011 mixtape, Thursday.
The Weeknd should definitly be freestyling at his live shows to bring some spontaneity, at least for a portion of the show, and also be doing a few acoustic versions of his album tracks.
Another criticism is that the band was confined to a small area isolated from The Weeknd, making any interaction impossible. He should work more closely with the band to create their unique sound and dynamic, and have them down on stage with him for at least part of the show.
The Weeknd enigma
The Weeknd’s mystique is partially what makes him so popular. Part of the reason he’s hard to figure out is that he does interviews sparingly and he’s a man of few words. He always appears well-adjusted, calm and reserved in interviews, shy when accepting awards, and spot-on when performing on television and awards shows. There have been no scandals, clean interviews, no DUI’s and only one arrest, when he punched a police officer in the head in Las Vegas.
The Weeknd’s lyrics are mostly about parties and afterparties, women, sex, drug binges and generally self-destructive behavior. This is pervasive on all his albums that he’s released over the last 5 years. As he says in his recent song “Tell Your Friends”:
“I’m the nigga with the hair
Singing ‘bout popping pills, fuckin’ bitches, living life so trill”
You wouldn’t think anyone could live this lifestyle and live to tell about it. But the touch of sweetness and melancholy, and hope for redemption, may be what makes The Weeknd irresistible.
How can a near-sociopathic hedonist and compulsive womanizer with the voice of an angel exude such loneliness and sadness through his music?The lyrics above show that he’s aware of the character he’s portraying in his songs, and it’s hard to tell if he’s being honest this or he is just creating a fictional character.
In real life he appears to be classy, professional, calm, collected, sober and polite. He’s therefore either an extremely high-functioning addict, Keith Richards style; or he’s significantly cut down on his partying, sex, drugs and drinking in recent years, especially since now he has a multi-million dollar career to manage.