During the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, left-field R&B superstar the Weeknd gave a stirring performance of his Best Original Song nominee, “Earned It.” The onstage spectacle echoed the music video for the 50 Shades Of Grey soundtrack cut, with acrobats suspended from the ceiling by aerial silk, writhing seductively as Abel Tesfaye crooned out the lyrics to his mood-setting slow jam. The Weeknd took the stage amidst a slightly odd semicircle of lit candles, just as likely to summon an undead spirit as simultaneously raise the internal temperatures of everyone in the audience. All smiles, Tesfaye was perfectly in key as his ultra-smooth backup dancers gave him an accompaniment that make the sexual heat of the song apparent, but network-acceptable.
Seeing Tesfaye perform on this highly visible national stage in a year beset by pervasive whiteness was a huge moment. More heartening still has been the relative rapidness of his rise to stardom; it was only a few years ago that Tesfaye was self-releasing mixtapes for free, gaining traction of buzz blogs and maintaining his own sense of mystery. But Tesfaye and the Weeknd brand has very much arrived, with this Oscar performance as the cherry on top of a banner year. With a bona fide radio hit now under his belt and some awards hardware to shore up his pedigree, the Weeknd’s quiet domination of mainstream R&B shows no signs of slowing.