Kaytranada got his set off though, and by the time the sun settled beyond the horizon, nearly every person in the presumably sold-out stadium was in their seats (LiveNation doesn’t comment on official attendance, but it looked like there were anywhere between 40,000-45,000 people there).
And as stage fog, ambient pre-show music, and iridescent blue lights emanated from the massive stage on the south end of RayJay, black clouds seemingly imported from Gotham City cloaked a yellow half-moon that hung over the stadium.
At 9:20 p.m., the man of the hour, emerged, masked, and immediately launched into four cuts that foreshadowed the synth-driven, EBM-flavored dance party that unfolded over the next 100-minutes. By the time Abel Tesfaye jumped into his 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” the crowd seemed to simultaneously exhale its vapes and commence a giant sing-along that would continue through the end of the night.
For the first 20 minutes of the show, it was unclear whether or not the 32-year-old would be able to meet the massive expectations of a full-blown stadium show, but a Eurythmics esque break bled into the propulsive “Take My Breath” and then Kanye-collab “Hurricane” where 50-foot flames shot out from the catwalk and the buildings onstage burned while Tesfaye lurched into “The Hills.”
Tesfaye—aided in part by jaw-dropping spotlights that pierced the sky and seemed to beam into the International Space Station—completely made the stadium his from then on out. And it wasn’t his first time in the 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 that performance his all before the Bucs earned a historic home stadium win.
The homecoming of sorts was not lost on the Toronto-based modern day pop icon. "I wouldn't be selling out stadiums it wasn't for 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. if it wasn’t for this city and the love they showed me at the Super Bowl I wouldn’t be able to do this stadium tour. last night will go down in XO history!”
And nearly all of The Weeknd’s history, including deep cuts, was revisited during the 29-song stadium spectacle featuring a gigantic moon, glowing red and blue and white throughout the night, on the north end of the catwalk. “The Morning” and “Wicked Games,” cuts from his underground, industry-shaking 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, got play and received giant singalongs from The Weeknd’s day ones, alongside the sleeper title track from 2013’s Kiss Land and “I Was Never There.”
TAMPA BAY will always have a special place in my heart. if it wasn’t for this city and the love they showed me at the Super Bowl I wouldn’t be able to do this stadium tour. last night will go down in XO history! MIAMI I’M COMING FOR YOU ! pic.twitter.com/Wr1A7dQ12I— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) August 5, 2022
Every song is a anthem when The Weeknd is onstage, and Tesfaye—who never seemed out of breath despite playing almost 30 songs in less than two hours—shines brightest when his fans are crooning back boudoir-born lyrics about drugs, sex and pushing yourself to both physical and emotional extremes.
“Call Out My Name,” the dramatic climax of the night, found Tesfaye wide-eyed and smiling—much like he was for most of the night—with arms open and playing maestro as the entire stadium folded over singing lyrics about broken people falling for each other despite all rationale telling them not to.
“You gave me comfort,” the crowd screamed. “But falling for you was my mistake.”
The darkness in The Weeknd’s material is the kind of stuff that probably makes Nancy Reagan roll over in her grave. There’s no other pop show where nearly 50,000 tweens scream back lyrics about popping pussy (“Often”), overdoing drugs and having an affair (“The Hills”), and rough sex (“Gasoline”) at the top of their lungs.
But there’s never been a pop star like Tesfaye, and his Tampa fans have followed him from his first local appearance at the Straz Center (2013), to Amalie Arena where he played in 2015 and 2017. Some might have even been in the house when The Weeknd played Super Bowl LV in front of a half-full stadium beefed up with cardboard cutouts.
There were no fake friends in the stands on Thursday. Instead, what The Weeknd stood in front of thousands and thousands of warm bodies and all their imperfections, all singing together.
It was eerie to watch the buildings onstage burn at certain points in the show, especially on “Faith,” where Tesfaye sings, “I feel everything from my body to my soul…When I'm coming down is the most I feel alone.”
The Weeknd’s fans belong to a generation that has to do more with less than their parents had, all while navigating an increasingly dystopian world that’s getting hotter and hungrier by the year (Tesfaye's XO Humanitarian fund, which donated $1 from every ticket sold aims to do its part to help). In Tampa, they live in a state where governors suspend prosecutors they don’t agree with, and a city where Nazis walk freely in downtown streets.
It’s a dark situation, and The Weeknd’s music, like it or not, is the appropriate soundtrack. But buried in hedonistic songs about substance abuse and feeling lost are loud messages of hope.
Tesfaye piled those messages into the last half of the show for songs about self-care (“Out Of Time”) and forgiveness (“Less Than Zero”). And while he sings about desperately needing help (“After Hours”), The Weeknd always makes room to remind fans that while the world can make them feel alone, he would figuratively lay down his life for them. And as those fans sang back the lyrics to “Die For You,” you got the feeling that they’d do the same.
When it gets dark out there, sometimes that’s all you need to get through the night.
How Do I Make You Love Me?
Can’t Feel My Face
Take My Breath
Crew Love (Drake)
Low Life (Future)
Out Of Time
I Feel It Coming
Die For You
Is There Someone Else?
I Was Never There
Call Out My Name
Save Your Tears
Less Than Zero