On Sunday night, Day 2 of the Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Toronto R&B singer The Weeknd saved his biggest hit to date, the "50 Shades of Grey" anthem "Earned It," for the second half of his Treehouse Stage-closing set. As the opening strings played over the speakers, the audience began to swoon and sway.
But what was most notable about The Weeknd's set was how little he needed to rely on the single that introduced his brooding brand of R&B to a mainstream audience. The majority of the crowd exclaimed louder for deeper cuts – like "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls" and "The Morning" -- from his catalog.
"I see a lot of XO's out there tonight," said the 25-year-old singer born Abel Tesfaye, referring to his fans who have co-opted The Weeknd's XO clique. (XO-branded merchandise could be seen throughout the audience.)
Sunday night confirmed The Weeknd's story remains the same as it's always been since Tesfaye began to reveal himself in 2010 through cloaked-in-mystery mixtapes and imagery: There's no denying that voice. Clearly influenced by Michael Jackson (check his cover of "Dirty Diana" on "Echoes of Silence"), The Weeknd's instrument never failed him at Sweetlife, whether it was the impressive vocal runs of "Earned It" or the melodic half-rap/half-singing of his "Or Nah (Remix)" verse.
While The Weeknd's lyrical themes – sex, drugs and dead-eyed debauchery fueled by both – ring vapid to some, he mines the territory with a writer's eye and a dry sense of humor. ("Always tryin' to send me off to rehab / Drugs start to feel like it's decaf," goes one recent lyric.) It's a shtick, and the words would undoubtedly be less appealing were they not wrapped in Tesfaye's tenor. His falsetto has power and The Weeknd can go low to high and back with ease. Simply put, his gift – combined with his constructed persona – sells it.
Before playing his new single, "The Hills," The Weeknd introduced the song as the next chapter to his new album coming later this year. The track – a horror-movie score with an epic chorus about an emotionless 5:30 a.m. transaction – hit the Internet last Wednesday, but much of the crowd already knew the words verbatim. If "The Hills" and the recent Max Martin-produced leak "I Can't Feel My Face" are indications of where The Weeknd is headed, he should be headlining music festivals for years to come.
More highlights and observations for Day 2 of the Sweetlife Festival:
• Main stage closer Calvin Harris worked the crowd into a euphoric frenzy with hits like "Feel So Close" and "Outside," even without a stage appearance from his rumored girlfriend Taylor Swift. And it would be wrong to not mention the sheer audacity of Harris' impressive stage design. Harris is one of the biggest names in electronic dance music – the rare EDM star viewed much like a pop star – and his budget for fireworks, smoke, video-screen panels and lasers reflected it.
The set was what you'd expect from an EDM headliner: Major bass drops, snippets of vocals sung back by the crowd and periodic check-ins from the DJ ("Are you with me, Sweetlife?!"). Harris has reached this pinnacle largely because his songs, with sticky hooks and massive climaxes, do not sound out of place on Top 40 radio.
But would you expect to hear the N-word at a Calvin Harris show? A small portion of Harris' set featured a repeated refrain from O.T. Genasis' ode to cooking crack cocaine, "CoCo." The chosen lyrics were deliberate, and it was surprising that a Scottish entertainer thought it would be in good taste to repeatedly drop, "I'm blowing money fast, n---a!" Harris also played a remix of Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" that includes similar language, but he did not harp on a specific line like he did with "CoCo." DJs spin records, and that can include popular ones like "CoCo," but this felt like a gratuitous misstep in an otherwise harmless set. It's a word that was said often from the Sweetlife stages, but as always when dealing with word choice and race, context matters. Kendrick Lamar, Vic Mensa and The Weeknd all said it casually and much more often, but the obvious applies here: They are black. Harris later interpolated white rapper RiFF RaFF's "Tip Toe Wing in My Jawwwdinz" which felt hilariously more appropriate.
• It was nice to see women command the Sweetlife stages on Sunday so consistently. Kelly Zutrau of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Wet beautifully carried the band's Treehouse Stage set, especially on the promising new single "Deadwater." Phantogram missed the mark — perhaps due to a poor sound mix — but singer Sarah Barthel seemed to take the reins halfway through to finish strong. Marina and the Diamonds took the stage to shrieks from young female fans, many of whom were wearing freshly purchased T-shirts with singer Marina Diamandis' face on the front.
Most impressive was Charli XCX, the provider of bratty hooks like Icona Pop's "I Love It" and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." On Sunday, she proved she was much more than those earworms, leading an all-female backing band as a hot-pink neon sign of her name glowed above. Charli can give off polished punk vibes; she credibly straddles the line between gleeful agitator and pop force. Here, she sounded fantastic, and even covered "Fancy," rap verses and all. Perhaps that was the greatest indicator of her charm: She made Azalea's hokey hit much easier to digest, in large part because Charli's English accent is considerably less grating than Azalea's Atlanta-via-Australia rapper accent. But best of all was Charli's proud femininity, which is always welcome at testosterone-filled music festivals. She started an anatomy-referencing "Power!" chant that can't be reprinted here, but the women yelled it back with an unmistakable fervor.
• Vic Mensa, the young Chicago rapper making headlines for collaborations with Kanye West, gave a charmingly messy set at the Treehouse Stage. He sprayed rose champagne (still not a cool rapper accessory) on the crowd, climbed the stage's foundation and rapped with a purpose. Still, he has some ways to go before his live set reaches the quality of his songs (something West also dealt with early on). A place for Vic Mensa to start: Rap and sing your best and biggest hit, "Down on My Luck," without your pre-recorded vocal track overpowering it.
• Sun Club, the Baltimore-based indie-rock quintet, solidified itself as a band to watch, if you are not already. They played the Treehouse Stage early in the afternoon, which is a hard time to win over a crowd, especially one still trying to find its bearings after a long Saturday. Sun Club brought the infectious energy we all needed, ripping through songs from their 2014 EP, "Dad Claps at the Mom Prom." Sun Club separates itself with its sense of rhythm; songs often take unpredictable twists without notice. Most audiences watched sets by acts they were already familiar with, but Sun Club won over the most new fans I saw all weekend.