My introduction to The Weeknd was the salacious Wicked Games, a track that spoke of adultery in an almost guilt-free manner, justifying Abel Tesfaye’s hypersexed hedonism with a dismissal of any real love in his relationship. It turned me off, seeming to me rather hollow and destructive, despite his silken voice – one of the best around – and gorgeous production. However, its musical beauty beckoned me, and I continued to give it a few more intermittent spins, without truly appreciating it.
That is, until I listened to Wicked Games‘ source mixtape, House of Balloons in its entirety. The lyrical content remained just as obscene, with a dark, often nihilistic perspective on love and relationships, marred in copious amounts of drugs and sex. The stunning voice and sensuous production was there too, just as enticing as ever. However, this was a mixtape merely in name – this was truly an album, an experience to be played from front to back. The very first time I heard the project in its entirety, I was hooked. Contextualized here, The Weeknd seemed less like a full-blown asshole, and more like an amorphous character, dwelling in, and absorbing the depths of humanity’s carnal desires. There was no light to be found here, no upliftment, no conscience. The traces of guilt that Abel felt were sidelined by anecdotes of sniffing lines of coke off women’s naked bodies.
It was terribly fascinating. I could not morally condone it, but in some way, it felt like Abel didn’t either. He wasn’t looking to be a good guy; it seemed to me that The Weeknd was a character, one that represented the parts of himself he didn’t quite nurture, but were too intrinsic to ignore. And so he reveled in them. House of Balloons, despite myself, quickly became a regular in my rotation, and I now consider it one of my favourite albums. The musical quality of the album is unlike any other of its time – epic and sensuous all the same, written by a haunted man, and sung in a voice just as divine as it is depraved. These hedonistic themes continued through the trilogy of mixtapes, including Thursday and Echoes of Silence. Everyone loves the anti-hero, don’t they?
With each release thereafter, Abel’s profile was growing, along with that of his collaborators, including early supporter, Drake. It soon became clear that The Weeknd was intent on being a musical star, not content with bubbling below the mainstream. The attempt to make this crossover came with Kiss Land, his debut album. Abel maintained his musical aesthetic for the most part, but there was an uneasy ropewalk quality to it. There were attempts to make pop records, especially with respect to the production, with mixed results. Additionally, either as a consequence of reaching for a mainstream audience or being unsure of his own sound, the lyrics became shallower, less nuanced. Kiss Land ran overlong, it sounded a little tired. It was easier to listen to the better songs individually, than as an album. Consequentially, the album never quite translated into the sort of commercial success Abel had set out to achieve: there really weren’t any monster singles on here.
The Weeknd needed a new image. He couldn’t be the one singing fucked up love songs in the corner, he had to be the one singing slightly less fucked up love songs – about women, drugs and fame – in stadiums. He soon found his way onto collaborations with Sia and Diplo for The Hunger Games soundtrack, in the form of the pop anthem, Elastic Heart, and contributed the black tie sexy Earned It for 50 Shades of Grey. While the latter was more classic Weeknd – think Twenty Eight – the former hinted at a serious shift in his sound, one more in tune with his supersized aspirations. With the arrival of singles from his sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness, these doubts were confirmed.
Alongside Earned It, two of the singles from BBTM, The Hills and Can’t Feel My Face, are the biggest hits of Abel’s career. They also represent the sound of an artist who’s relentlessly seeking superstar status, and little else. The Hills wasn’t a radical departure from his previous music, but had a much more repeated, extremely catchy hook, and brevity was the name of the game when it came to the lyrics. Can’t Feel My Face, on the other hand, was pop music at its finest. Working alongside pop maestro Max Martin on production, The Weeknd served up an MJ-esque hit that seemed innocuous enough on the surface, with drug references that were far less pornographic than his past music, almost to the point of innocence. It worked. The song was played everywhere, with radio listeners lapping it up. Simultaneously, The Hills and Often had enough of old Weeknd in it to keep his core fanbase satiated, if not particularly happy.
The singles from BBTM were winners. The album, on the other hand, not as much. With his mainstream aspirations, The Weeknd went across the board in sound, from electropop records such as In The Night, to pop ballads such as Shameless, and completely unexpected collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Labrinth. The project was clearly, not an album. It was a collection of several terrific songs, mostly the singles, and it seemed like there was some serious padding. Each of the better songs were meant to lift Abel up on their musical wings into the mainstream stratosphere. It made little sense, then, to listen to BBTM from front to back beyond an initial spin. It seemed like Abel wanted the playlist to be his home now. He’d thus rule the charts, and had few reservations in jettisoning the idea of a cohesive project along the way. This was clearly in line with Abel’s long term vision, and it’s evident he’d understood the music business well. In an age that looks at singles’ charting positions as the metric for an artist’s success, The Weeknd knew that unabashed, relevant pop music was his ladder up.
The release of Starboy, The Weeknd’s newest single from his upcoming album of the same name, is a clear indication of his path. With a new hairstyle, production from musical auteurs Daft Punk, and possibly his most ‘fun’ lyrics to date, Abel has officially laid to rest his past, dark persona – as evident in the positively upbeat music video for the song – and brought in its stead, electropop perfection. There’s a suave cockiness in Abel’s voice and lyrics, the cadence purposefully more BBTM than House of Balloons. It’s a terrific song, and a great lead single. But the question remains if The Weeknd will be a full-blown singles artist – albeit a spectacular one – or if his vision will see him balance artistry and business to create a masterful pop LP, with more coherence than his past work. As a fan of his music, I’m hoping for the latter, but if he puts out more consistently great songs like this one, I don’t think I’ll be complaining when the album comes out.
Either way, The Weeknd is now a muhfuckin’ starboy. It would be wise to watch his moves.