It would have been virtually unimaginable six years ago that the artist born Abel Tesfaye — known purveyor of seedy, nihilistic R&B anthems with indie accents and vague pop awareness — would ever be headlining at the world’s most-watched annual music event. But so came the announcement today (from the man himself) that indeed, The Weeknd would be performing at halftime of Super Bowl LV next February.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 12, 2020
As shocking as it would’ve seemed in 2014, by 2020, the revelation is just kind of chuckle-worthy at most. The Weeknd has become one of North American pop’s most consistent and widely successful performers, with four Billboard 200 No. 1 albums and five Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles to his credit — the former including this year’s After Hours, one of 2020’s most-consumed sets, and the latter including “Blinding Lights,” which became the longest-reigning song ever on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart this August.
Now that he’s spent the better part of a decade as both an alt&B hedonist and a global pop superstar, what might a best-of-both-worlds setlist look like? Let’s run down Billboard‘s vision for halftime of Super Bowl LV:
1. “The Hills” (intro)
No better way to kick off a halftime show set than with those doomy synth stabs that kick off The Weeknd’s unlikely longest-reigning Hot 100 No. 1 hit to date, “The Hills.” The song’s probably a little too violent and foul-mouthed to play too much of, so maybe Abel cuts it just before he gets to the chorus — with the disembodied shriek that announces the song’s hook instead being replaced by…
2. “House of Balloons” / “Lonely Star”
…the disembodied howl that kicks off Tesfaye’s first masterpiece, the zooming title track to his debut mixtape House of Balloons. The Siouxsie and the Banshees-sampling fan favorite will be an early treat for Weeknd Day Ones — and after a verse and a chorus, he can pivot from that to a bit of “Lonely Star,” the similarly propulsive opener to his Thursday tape, making it clear that Abel hasn’t lost sight of his roots amidst his pop superstardom.
3. “In Your Eyes” (feat. Kenny G and Peter Gabriel)
But of course, we also need an early reminder of The Weeknd’s contemporary pop dominance, so let’s flash forward real quick to “In Your Eyes,” the synth-pop stomper released as After Hours‘ third single. Kenny G is an obvious choice of guest, having already provided his sax wailing to the song’s official remix — but the real inspired special appearance will come from ’80s pop/rock icon Peter Gabriel, singing once through his own “In Your Eyes” refrain in a rare TV appearance.
4. “Earned It”
Lest we get too hyped too early, time for The Weeknd to slow it down a bit with this waltzing Fifty Shades of Grey theme. The overproduced soundtrack ballad isn’t exactly a fan favorite, but it was Tesfaye’s first Hot 100 top 10 hit as a lead artist, and likely the song a lot of folks watching first heard of his, so fair enough — he’ll quickly power through a verse and chorus here before moving on.
5. “Love Me Harder” (feat. Ariana Grande)
The two prospective Super Bowl guests sure to be the most-whispered about following The Weeknd’s announcement: Drake (for the two’s Take Care collab “Crew Love”) and Ariana Grande (for their smash My Everything duet “Love Me Harder”). Given his slightly contentious history with his onetime Canadian compatriot, Drake seems an unlikely cameo, but Grande — whose recent Positions album Tesfaye also appeared on — could maybe be talked into it, giving longtime fans of both artists a true throwback thrill.
6. “Can’t Feel My Face’
The first No. 1 of The Weeknd’s career, and still the four-quadrant pop smash that a lot of listeners probably most associate with him. “Can’t Feel My Face” was the song that proved that Tesfaye’s MJ aspirations were legitimate, and it’ll probably be the song that sounds most natural being broadcast to hundreds of million of homes worldwide.
7. “Starboy” / “I Feel It Coming” (feat. Daft Punk)
And heeeere come the Robots. There won’t be a ton for them to actually do on the Raymond James Stadium stage besides some pantomimed knob-twiddling, but it’ll still be gratifying to see Daft Punk in attendance for their pair of pop-conquering, future-classic teamups with The Weeknd from his Starboy album: the title track and “I Feel It Coming,” here merged into one gratifying medley.
8. “Blinding Lights”
And then of course, the climax: As stadium-ready a hit song as dominated the airwaves in 2020, one that topped the charts in nearly every country where the Super Bowl is televised, and one which there’s no indication folks have gotten even the slightest bit sick of since it became ubiquitous in the months following its Nov. 2019 release. By the time of the Super Bowl, it might even serve as something of a victory lap for Tesfaye, with the Grammys — where “Blinding Lights” is expected to be a heavy contender — coming just a week before.
9. “The Morning”
After this blowout run of chart smashes, a closing coda for the fans: “The Morning,” enduring centerpiece to House of Balloons, recently immortalized as an early ’10s classic in the acclaimed 2019 Safdie Brothers movie Uncut Gems. As the full stadium belts out the “All that money, the money is the motive” chorus, perhaps the music cuts out for one final a cappella singalong. Maybe he can even get Adam Sandler (as Howard Ratner) on backing vocals.