Can you name the three headliners of this year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival? If you said AC/DC, Jack White and Drake, you’d be wrong. On Mar. 25, it was announced that the Weeknd, not Jack White, would be closing out the main stage at Coachella this year, and the set times released earlier this week confirmed that White would be performing until 11:00 PM on the second night of the festival before ceding the floor to the enigmatic R&B star at 11:25 PM.
The set time switcheroo isn’t unprecedented — in 2011, the Chemical Brothers, not announced headliners Kings of Leon, closed out the main stage, and Swedish House Mafia followed the Black Keys in a similar situation in 2012. Perhaps the Coachella masterminds at Goldenvoice simply thought that the smoky sex haze of the Weeknd’s music was a more fitting late-night option than White’s blues-rock pileup. Whatever the reason, though, the headlining status of the Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) represents the culmination of a not-so-quietly massive year for the 25-year-old, who has transitioned from a mysterious mixtape auteur to pop radio phenom in the span of four years. Three years ago, the Weeknd performed at Coachella’s Outdoor Theatre stage on Sunday afternoon, to a few hundred onlookers; this year, he’ll be closing out the main stage one day before Drake does the same.
The Coachella gig tidily coincides with the biggest single of the Weeknd’s career: “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey).” The slinky BDSM ode from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack continues climbing on the Hot 100 chart, reaching a new peak of No. 4 this week. The song has also proven to be a Top 40 force as well, with Greatest Gainer honors on this week’s Radio Songs chart, where it places at No. 6. “Earned It” contains an assertive hook and downright romantic sentiments (well, in a Fifty Shades kind of way), but it’s still jarring to hear an R&B artist whose primary lyrical focus has long been sex, drugs and celebratory hedonism coexist on pop radio with the likes of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5.
But if “Earned It” has opened the door to the Weeknd’s mainstream bid, the Ariana Grande duet “Love Me Harder” led him to that door. The seductive third single from Grande’s My Everything album was not as big of a chart hit as the two singles that came before it (“Problem” and “Break Free”), but gave the Weeknd the first Hot 100 Top 10 hit of his career, and introduced his voice to a sizable new audience. Grande and the Weeknd performed the song together on Saturday Night Live and at the American Music Awards. The official music video starring the two artists has accrued over 200 million YouTube views. “Love Me Harder” allowed the Weeknd to join the pop realm with a proven star by his side and showcase his stunning voice, all without straying too far from his R-rated R&B aesthetic; in other words, he cracked the radio seal while asking, “Can you feel the pressure between your hips?”
Meanwhile, the Weeknd has slowly turned himself into a captivating live performer after feeling his way through his first performances a few years ago. At Coachella in 2012, the Weeknd appeared tentative while presenting his acclaimed trio of 2011 mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence); since then, he has headlined multiple tours, and also opened for Justin Timberlake and Drake on their respective arena runs in 2013 and 2014.
The Weeknd’s stage presence has grown more assured, and his live show — often dotted with silhouettes of nude women and homages to classic films — has become more distinctive. And a rabid fan base has helped the Weeknd book a headlining slot at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, despite not necessarily having the longevity or mainstream hits of a typical arena artist. Coachella is not the only festival to have faith in the Weeknd’s stage command — he’ll also be headlining Lollapalooza this summer, manning one of the two main stages while Paul McCartney plays the other.
All of these flashy opportunities are presumably leading up to the Weeknd’s follow-up to his 2013 album Kiss Land, which has sold 259,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Music. Perhaps he previews his unreleased music at Coachella; maybe he brings out Drake to perform “Crew Love” and cause a festival field’s worth eardrum-rattling shrieks. Or maybe the Weeknd sticks to the solo songs that more people are growing to love with each passing month. Whatever he chooses, the Weeknd has a shot at the type of star-making moment that boosted an artist like Lana Del Rey at Coachella last year.
You can disagree that the rising R&B performer should be closing out the Coachella main stage on Saturday night over a more decorated artist like White, but you can’t deny that, for the Weeknd, this year’s Coachella represents a major coup even before he graces the stage.