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The Weeknd at Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival: 5 observations from his headlining set

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Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

The Weeknd (alias Abel Tesfaye) has been making the festival rounds this year, but there’s a difference between being one blurb on the packed, eye-chart-like line-ups of Lollapalooza and Coachella and headlining the thing — which is exactly what he did with his Billboard Hot 100 Fest set on Saturday. To a stadium full of fans mostly or only there to see him, the former mixtape star proved his mainstream crossover potential. EW got a beachside seat to this coming-out party for R&B’s newest superstar. Here’s what we saw.

Asking for consent

In the grand R&B tradition, The Weeknd is pretty much always singing about sex. There are variations, of course – weird sex, pity sex, ecstatic sex – but all his songs carry an elemental sensuality. Before laying his vibes over the Billboard crowd, T performed the proper prelude and asked for consent. “Can I get sexy with you, New York??” the singer screamed. “Can I get on top of you tonight?” With a crowd-wide scream of affirmation, the show was off.

Good use of EDM tools

The Weeknd took the reins of Billboard’s main stage from Axwell^Ingrosso, who have served as EDM’s best mainstream ambassadors since their days in Swedish House Mafia. The transition made more sense than you might think. It’s 2015 and genre barriers are breaking down across the board, but The Weeknd in particular has successfully brought EDM elements into his R&B. On Saturday that went for both the sound (his performance of “Love Me Harder” had some breathtaking drops) and feel (T’s ethereal, semi-indecipherable singing became as elemental an instrument as anything in Axwell^Ingrosso’s arsenal). Plus The Weeknd’s multi-colored light show (complete with sizable amounts of fire and smoke) carried itself well even by the Swedish duo’s high bar. Of course, The Weeknd hasn’t abandoned the traditional tools of the R&B trade; his accomplished band bust out enough funky riffs to please the Dave Grohls of the world.

Expanded songs live

The Weeknd’s early mixtapes were best listened to through headphones while wallowing in terrible relationship decisions. His music since then has gotten bigger and poppier, and T has figured out how to expand all his songs for a live stadium setting. T’s voice sounded clear at the Nikon Jones Beach theater, and hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” inspired crowd singalongs.

Took what he needed from superstars

It’s pretty much inevitable that any young R&B crooner with a shot at stardom will face comparisons to previous archetypes. The Weeknd proved Saturday that he is his own strange, singular force, but willing to take what he needs from predecessors. His performance of Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love” was a definite highlight, since that song and that aspect of Beyonce fits Tesfaye perfectly. Tesfaye lacks the rapid wordplay and semi-rapping of “Crazy In Love” Beyonce, but he can sure belt out ballads about how elementally joyous and painful it feels to be in love.

Tesfaye has been most frequently compared to Michael Jackson, likely because their voices sound kind of similar (he and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker should start a support group). While Tesfaye is not quite the supernova Jackson was (who is?), he does have a similar swagger, as he demonstrated by busting out some moonwalking footwork during “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Proved “Can’t Feel My Face” should’ve been song of the summer

At this point, the consensus about this year’s Song of the Summer seems to be that there is none. Instead of the monolithic dominance of a “Blurred Lines” or “Fancy,” we’re left with a field of has-beens and coulda-woulda-shoulda’s. But The Weeknd’s climactic performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” on Saturday, along with other new songs from upcoming album Beauty Behind the Madness, makes one wish that his album rollout had started even a month earlier. It’ll still be huge, as crowd love for songs like “Often” demonstrated, but it sure feels like he could’ve owned the summer.

Better late than never. Fall needs its soundtrack, too.

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