The Week In Pop

24K Starboys: Thoughts Upon Seeing The Weeknd & Bruno Mars On Consecutive Nights

The year was 2011. Winter was on the verge of melting away, but the sounds emanating from the north were still plenty frigid. From out of the newly ascendant Toronto scene that gave us Drake came a dark and mysterious figure calling himself the Weeknd. We’d later learn this person was Abel Tesfaye, a child of Ethiopian immigrants whose teenage years were marked by hard drugs and petty crime. We’d become intimately familiar with his influences, his celebrity girlfriends, even his haircuts. But at the time, he gave us no pictures or biography or even his real name. His only offering was a free mixtape called House Of Balloons that presented a stunning new vision of R&B damaged by art, drugs, and self-loathing sex. Songs built from cutting-edge production and hip samples detailed a bleary-eyed nihilistic underworld where illicit substances were strewn across glass tables and hollowed-out souls sought temporary transcendence through anonymous hookups. “Trust me, girl,” he sang. “You wanna be high for this.”

At this point Bruno Mars’ world domination campaign was well underway. By the time House Of Balloons was beginning to circulate among online tastemakers, Mars was coming off his second #1 single from the previous year’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans, having duplicated the success of daily-affirmation mantra “Just The Way You Are” with the passionate love song “Grenade.” A Hawaii native with an eclectic lineage who’d been honing his showmanship his whole life, the guy was almost laboratory designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. His approach to music was as bright and shamelessly cheery as the Weeknd’s was shadowy and dour. Mars zigged retro where the Weeknd zagged futuristic. They seemed to occupy entirely separate musical universes. For the most part, they did.

Six and a half years later, Mars and the Weeknd continue to represent distinct archetypes of 21st-century pop stardom. It’s hard to imagine them collaborating or even working with many of the same producers (though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mars sliding into the Pharrell role next time Tesfaye’s buds Daft Punk want to cook up a hit single). Yet the two singers have become peers of a sort. With 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness and 2016’s Starboy, Tesfaye completed his unlikely ascent to mainstream superstardom without nudging his stylishly depraved signature sound all that far into the center. Mars has achieved something even unlikelier: Largely thanks to “Uptown Funk,” his blockbuster collaboration with Mark Ronson, the guy who penned “The Lazy Song” has acquired some degree of cool cachet. In the past year, both artists scored #1 hits in part by appealing to both pop and hip-hop radio (“Starboy” for the Weeknd and “That’s What I Like” for Mars). In parallel, they exist in many of the same spaces — radio playlists, awards ceremonies, concert venues — a point driven home for me this week, when they performed at the same Columbus arena on consecutive nights. I attended both shows, and it got me thinking about these two characters’ competing approaches.

First up was the Weeknd on Tuesday night. The setup he brought to the Schottenstein Center was something like an evil spaceship — Deathstarboy? — with lasers streaming diagonally upward from a triangular stage above a three-piece band and a gargantuan movable lighting contraption descending over a catwalk that extended all the way across the arena floor. Every surface from top to bottom was sleek and black with a neon light-up border. When Tesfaye emerged from the catwalk floor dressed in a baggy denim jacket over all black everything, a galaxy of smartphone flashlights completed the outer-space imagery.

He began with “Starboy,” appropriately enough, and continued with some highlights from that album, including “Party Monster,” “Reminder,” and “Six Feet Under,” the latter’s Future sample providing an ideal segue into the actual Future collab “Low Life.” (To be clear, Future wasn’t present except in spirit.) It also underlined something the Weeknd and Future have in common besides a discography full of numbed, villainous hedonism. People often compare Future to an old bluesman thanks in part to his prolific and sometimes indistinguishable output. And although Tesfaye is one of our more forward-thinking pop stars, especially compared to the overtly old-fashioned Mars, his catalog reminds me of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, when hard-living rebels like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were bashing out hit after hit within the bounds of a basic template.

As songs like “Might Not” and “Often” and “Some Way” piled up, there was an essential sameness to much of the first half of the set, a tendency toward woozy trap-music loops configured for the darker corners of the VIP lounge and topped off with Tesfaye’s beaming high-register vocals. Yet his mastery of that aesthetic, in particular his bottomless well of hooks, made it so the formula rarely seemed less than enthralling. Last year’s overstuffed Starboy proved that 20 straight Weeknd songs can become a slog, but the overlong malaise that dragged that album down did not materialize here due to better quality control. It helped that Tesfaye’s band was adept at making these songs bounce and that his live vocals were astounding; he rarely leaned on a canned vocal track like so many of his peers. And when he rolled out “Crew Love,” the Drake collaboration that served as his right and proper introduction to the airwaves, it became clear how profound his impact on those airwaves has become.

Despite his deep influence on the sound of modern R&B, the Weeknd has branched out from his comfort zone occasionally — it’s been a big part of his ability to climb the charts — and the second half of the performance bore that out. There was “Wicked Games,” the breakthrough single that helped to cement his ethos, with its feeling of simultaneously rising into ecstasy and descending into hell and its chorus of “Bring your love, baby, I could bring my shame/ Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain.” But there was also the luxuriant, Kanye-produced neo-soul vamp “Tell Your Friends.” And the dignified ballad “Earned It,” fully Bond-themed out for the live show. And the vibrant new wave pastiche “Secrets.” And the earnest Michael Jackson worship of “In The Night,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” and the show-closing “I Feel It Coming.” Yet come encore time it all ended up in the darkness again thanks to “The Hills,” Tesfaye’s biggest hit and the surest proof that he doesn’t need to compromise his personal vision to exist in the mainstream. Getting gothic horror-show bass bombs and lyrics that plumb the depths of hopelessness to the top of the charts for six weeks remains his most impressive accomplishment (though its reign did coincide with Halloween season).

A show like that really accentuates what a traditionalist Bruno Mars is — and how much his shtick stands out from the rest of the pop landscape right now. He played the same arena Wednesday, and his production could not have been much more different from the Weeknd’s. Whereas Tesfaye mostly stalked the catwalk and relegated his band to the periphery, Mars literally moved as a unit with his Hooligans on a stage that largely dispensed with ostentatious set design — though he did not spare any expense with regard to lighting and pyrotechnics. The Weeknd’s dark color palette gave way to a colorful array of HOOLIGANS baseball jerseys atop matching shorts(!) and white Nikes, and the cloud of fashionable bleakness that hovers over Tesfaye’s work evaporated into an absolute celebration with no regard for what is or isn’t corny.

Mars is a thoroughbred entertainer. His live show is the product of working so hard at every aspect of entertainment that it seems to come easy, betrayed only by the sweat he’s constantly wiping from his brow. He seems to have closely studied the entire history of pop music and culled only the most crowd-pleasing elements into one big joyous pan-decade pop-music extravaganza. His records already reflect his slavish dedication to classic pop craftsmanship brought to life by impeccable playing and singing. At gigs, those components come together in real time with choreography so persistently meticulous that I wonder if there’s a single movement in the show not mapped out ahead of time, all punctuated by a world-class ham flexing every ounce of his charisma. You paid good money for a show, and Mars is going to give you one.

The current version of this spectacle is built around 24K Magic, the album Mars unveiled late last year after toiling away in search of perfection for nearly four years. Historically, he’s done a lot of chameleonic jumping between genres and eras, but the new album narrows his focus somewhat into a weapons-grade composite of R&B history, with a heavy emphasis on the ’80s and ’90s sounds Mars grew up on. Thus we get Zapp and Boyz II Men and James Brown and New Edition and R. Kelly and Blackstreet and the Jackson 5 and so many other hitmakers condensed into nine immensely fun and likable songs about love and sex and romance, built rock solid from the ground up. Every one of them is brilliantly constructed, rich with musicality yet buoyant in a way that makes them feel effortless. By the time Mars and his band were nine songs into Wednesday’s set, they’d already played all but one track from 24K Magic, with the likeminded “Treasure” slotted in for good measure. It was a party; it was a whirlwind; it was a thrill.

This was not a case of enduring the artist’s new material while you wait for the hits. Every one of these songs felt like a hit. In fact, those 24K Magic songs are so spectacular, and Mars’ stage show is so expertly geared to bring the best out of them, that some of the older singles he rolled out later in the set couldn’t live up to their splendor. Maybe it goes without saying that Mars has evolved beyond the merely pleasant “Marry You” and the saccharine “Just The Way You Are,” but even the undeniably sturdy #1 hits “Grenade” and “When I Was Your Man” were a relative letdown after the inferno that was Mars’ new material.

Not that all his early hits fell flat Wednesday. Mars encored first with his Police-inspired “Locked Out Of Heaven,” the most electrifying song to ever appear on a Bruno Mars album, then followed it with the most electrifying Bruno Mars song, period. That’d be “Uptown Funk,” his and Ronson’s masterpiece, a song so contagious with jubilation that I don’t even mind when my eight-year-old nephew asks me to play it on repeat in my car. I look forward to it, actually. (He was my +1 last night, and I’m pretty sure all the sexual innuendo went over his head. He was more interested in collecting bits of the confetti that rained down upon the audience during “Locked Out Of Heaven.” His review: “Best night ever!” Major cool points for Uncle Chris.)

There’s one more difference between Mars and the Weeknd: You probably can’t bring your eight-year-old nephew to a Weeknd concert in good conscience. Yet for all their contrasts, I came away from these two shows thinking about those few things they have in common and what that overlap tells us about what makes a great pop star. Both artists draw heavily from Michael Jackson, ground zero for any understanding of what it means to be a pop icon. Both guys are essentially playing a character onstage: Bruno Mars isn’t his real name, after all, and Tesfaye’s not as much of a drugged-up sociopath as he lets on. Perhaps most importantly, they’re both presenting fully realized creative visions all their own, and they both understate how to write fantastic songs that elevate those visions. Although you could write them off at first as, respectively, trendy blog bait and an insufferable cornball, they’ve developed into powerhouses over the years by trusting their instincts and honing their craft. They have revealed themselves to be, like all the greatest pop stars, truly one of a kind.

CHART WATCH

Fans of Cardi B campaigned hard to get her “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” to #1 this week, but alas, the hip-hop hit remains at #2 while Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” spends a third week atop the Hot 100. If it’s any consolation to Cardi supporters, Billboard reports that “Bodak Yellow” was the most streamed song of the week, and a new “Bodak” remix with Kodak Black could supply enough firepower to topple Swift next week. Up next, Logic, Alessia Cara, and Khalid’s anti-suicide ballad “1-800-273-8255″ rises to a new #3 peak, becoming the best-charting song by all three artists (and the best-charting phone number ever), while Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and sometimes Justin Bieber’s 16-week #1 “Despacito” slides to #4.

Sam Smith’s LP2 lead single “Too Good At Goodbyes” gets a big start, entering at #5 — his highest debut by far, besting his #64-debuting Disclosure collab “Omen” from 2015. Thanks to the launch of its music video this week, perhaps the song will compete in the race for #1 next week? The rest of the top 10 comprises songs that have probably already reached their peak: DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts” at #6, French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable” at #7, Charlie Puth’s “Attention” at #8, Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” at #9, and Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” at #10.

Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, country superstar Thomas Rhett nabs his first #1 album with 123,000 equivalent units and 94,000 in traditional sales for Life Changes. Per Billboard it’s the first country album to go #1 this year and the first since Jason Aldean’s They Don’t Know did it about this time last year — though in that time Brett Eldredge, Zac Brown Band, Chris Stapleton, and Brantley Gilbert all had albums enter the chart at #2. This also marks the fourth straight week an artist has scored their first #1 album following chart-toppers from Brand New, Lil Uzi Vert, and LCD Soundsystem.

At #2 is the National, whose great new Sleep Well Beast moved 64,000 units and scored 59,000 in sales en route to their best chart performance ever, besting the #3 peak they achieved with High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. (It’s also their first UK #1.) The National benefitted from one of those concert ticket/album sales bundles everyone from Arcade Fire to Katy Perry have been benefitting from lately. Ditto ODESZA; thanks to a similar sales plan, A Moment Apart moved 63,000 units and scored 52,000 in sales en route to a #3 debut, their best chart performance ever.

After Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2 at #4 comes Jack Johnson at #5 with 44,000 units/41,000 sales for the new All The Light Above It Too — another beneficiary of an album-plus-ticket scheme. XXXTentacion’s 17 is at #6, and then comes another country singer, Dustin Lynch, who tallied 36,000 units/27,000 sales of Current Mood for a #7 debut. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Khalid’s American Teen continue to show staying power at #8 and #9 respectively. And rounding out the top 10 is one more country singer, Kip Moore, whose Slowheart accrued 29,000 units and 25,000 sales.

POP FIVE

Miley Cyrus – “Week Without You”
I know this latest Miley Cyrus reboot must be for somebody, but it ain’t for me! All of these Younger Now singles seem like the unremarkable new material you patiently endure at a legacy artist’s concert while waiting for the good stuff.

Macklemore – “Good Old Days” (Feat. Kesha)
This song would have been a smash three or four years ago; whether it can be a hit now will be instructive as to whether Macklemore and Kesha can continue to be anything but album artists playing to their respective fan bases anymore. As for whether you’ll like it? That depends entirely on your taste for Macklemore because it is 100% in his sentimental/motivational pop-rap wheelhouse.

Niall Horan – “Too Much to Ask”
With the enjoyable folk-pop track “Slow Hands,” former 1D member Horan is on the brink of a top-10 single. This new one skews a little too close to anonymous Fray-core for my liking, but I bet it charts even higher. The hook definitely hooks you even if everything around it is cancerously bland.

Echosmith – “Dear World”
This hit-making family band was set to release its second album at the end of the month, but — perhaps due to those aforementioned hits drying up — they’ve pared it down to an EP and pushed the LP launch back to next year. (Officially, the reason for the delay is “we’ve been overrun with inspiration lately and have more we would like to add to the album.”) This latest EP track does not particularly sound like it’s going to end Echosmith’s drought, so hopefully this burst of inspiration is as inspired as they say.

U2 & Kygo – “You’re The Best Thing About Me”
Crack your jokes about U2 reaching for relevance with a remix from a tropical house poster boy, but this is exponentially better than the original song. If they insist on trying to ride the zeitgeist, U2 should just go full dance-pop on their next album. (Oh, right.)

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Rihanna reunited with Beyoncé at the Diamond Ball in NYC. [The Fader]
  • Here’s a behind-the-scenes video of Taylor Swift’s transformation into a zombie for the “Look What You Made Me Do” video. [YouTube]
  • Tyler, The Creator said he wrote “See You Again” for Zayn, but “that bitch flaked on studio time twice, so i kept the ref for myself.” [Twitter]
  • Katy Perry incorporated some of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” into “Bon Appétit” at her Witness Tour opener in Montreal. [Twitter]
  • Drake got two new tattoos: Denzel Washington and late OVO member Fif. [Hypebeast]
  • Nick Jonas released a video for “Find You.” [YouTube]
  • Jhené Aiko debuted new music in a short film called Trip. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Zedd and Liam Payne released a guerilla-style video for “Get Low” filmed on the streets of London. [YouTube]
  • Miley Cyrus shared the tracklist for Younger Now. [YouTube]
  • The Latin Grammy Award nominations, scheduled for Wednesday, were postponed because of Tuesday’s earthquake in Mexico and the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. [NBC]
  • Shawn Mendes also cancelled his Mexico City show due to the earthquake. [Instagram]
  • U2 mixed some of Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk On A Plane” into “Beautiful Day.” [Facebook]
  • At his San Francisco tour kickoff, Harry Styles sang Fleetwood Mac, One Direction, and the song he-crote for Ariana Grande. There was a lot of screaming. [Billboard]

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