A hallmark of any great musical icon is their ability to transcend what was once considered their “sound” or mission statement. Rather than stay stationary and rake in money off of crude and increasingly soulless repetitions of what they’ve already done, all of the real legends, in any genre, will continue to evolve.
Referred to in modern pop music parlance as “eras,” every act of shapeshifting from an artist– whether aesthetical or musical– represents part of their growth.
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Yet while some stars are content to simply dye their hair and chalk that up to a reinvention, every true great knows that to really be remembered as a pioneer, you can never take such a convenient route. In this instance. Canada’s own The Weeknd finds himself in league with those who dared to rip up preconceptions of who or what their music is.
Ever since he redefined what R&B could sound and feel like with his opening statements, Abel Tesfaye has refused to be content with what others would view as a crowning achievement.
Now, as he stands on the precipice of welcoming us into what he’s billed as a “new sonic universe” with Dawn FM, it seems necessary to look back at where he’s come from in order to further understand where he’s headed.
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Although Abel is immediately recognizable today, it’s important to remember that this wasn’t the case when he first emerged. In reality, mystique actually played an integral role in the allure that surrounded his music. Identifiable only by his name, the mystery surrounding this purveyor of immersive, decadently-minded R&B became such an enigma that, at the time of the release of the heralded House Of Balloons mixtape, Pitchfork’s review pegged The Weeknd as a group— a common mistake by fans and critics alike.
After setting the blogosphere alight with his somber yet arresting sound, The Weeknd became the stuff of legend almost immediately. Courted by fellow Torontonian Drake, The Weeknd’s formal emergence at the Mod Club on July 24th, 2011 saw fans and industry folk offering up to $200 for a glimpse of this revolutionary material.
From there, the world hung on each and every release from what would become known collectively as his Trilogy. Along with Echoes Of Silence and Thursday, House Of Balloons redrew the boundaries of what people considered to be R&B, and by Abel’s own admission, gave the genre a jolt of much-needed vitality.
“Alternative R&B is in my soul. It’s not going anywhere,” he told TIME in 2015. “When I put out songs from House of Balloons in 2010, people said I made R&B cool again. I’m assuming that’s when the label was created. I feel honored that a good part of today’s music is inspired by it, consciously or subconsciously.”
But for all that Abel’s early days were celebrated on a sonic front, they weren’t without controversy. For many listeners, Abel’s depictions of late-night rendezvous and debauched parties teetered a little close to misogynistic territory. But in Tesfaye’s evaluation, it is simply a narrative like anything else.
“It’s definitely a character,” he later informed Esquire when asked about some of his most risque lines from the early years. “When you hear some of the drastic stuff, you can tell.”
Standing atop of a mountain of his own devising, the record company machine naturally came knocking and after he signed a “strategic partnership” with Universal subsidiary Republic, audiences were primed and ready for his major-label debut.
Released in 2014, Kiss Land is often considered the low ebb of a celebrated catalogue and for Abel; it was the byproduct of creative burnout.
“As a debut record, there was an expectation for it. I guess, for me, it was the fourth album. I feel like I said everything I needed to say on Trilogy— and that sound and whatever I wanted to put out into the universe. It created a genre, and I made 30 of those fucking songs. I think by the time I got to Kiss Land, I was definitely emotionally tapped out. I did three albums in one year—plus I was working on Take Care too. And that was all in 2011.”
Although it fell short of the mark and didn’t spawn a single Billboard Hot 100 single, Abel still sees it as a key component in the artist he’d become and has claimed that later albums couldn’t have been made without the building blocks that he laid on that occasion.
Beauty Behind The Madness
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After Kiss Land floundered, The Weeknd likely felt some pressure to pull another rabbit out the hat in the vein of a House Of Balloons. But instead, he eschewed the template that he’d created in order to take aim at rearranging the face of commercial music as we know it today.
Although it wasn’t much of a lyrical departure– he even maintained that he was “still that n****a with the hair singing ‘bout popping’ pills, fucking bitches” on the Ye-helmed “Tell Your Friends,” his 2015 LP, Beauty Behind The Madness, saw big, danceable production and euphoric choruses come to the fore.
“I want to make pop cool again,” he remarked prior to the record’s release, “and the only way I can do that is by being ambitious and grand.”
Spawning the first international number ones of Abel’s career in the form of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” Beauty Behind The Madness saw The Weeknd augment his music for mass consumption for the first time. But rather than change his sound in a way that felt like a concession, he, once again, let culture come to him.
In addition to Abel’s own personal strides forward as a writer, the project also marked the first time that he’d link up with Swedish pop savant Max Martin and in the years to come, their partnership has been a key weapon in his arsenal as he made the jump to superstardom.
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If Beauty Behind The Madness made The Weeknd into a force to be reckoned with on the pop charts, Starboy marked his true ascent to the ranks of an icon.
Released little over a year on from his previous body of work, you’d imagine that seismic change wouldn’t be on the agenda. But in lyrical, tonal, and musical terms, Starboy saw The Weeknd delve into a vibrant, neon-lit world in which he was embracing his status as a king in the game.
“The vibe on Starboy comes from that hip-hop culture of braggadocio, from Wu-Tang and 50 Cent, the kind of music I listened to as a kid,” Abel told Billboard. “Bragging just sounds good, man. I was a teenager when I saw Scarface, and even though it was unbelievable, it’s kind of cool Tony Montana could survive all those gunshots and not feel them.”
After its Daft Punk-assisted lead single broke the Spotify streaming record for most plays in a day, The Weeknd was vindicated for his decision to link up with a group that is “one of the reasons that I make music.” And in the years since, he’s been quick to collaborate with those in the field of electronica, ranging from Gesaffelstein and Swedish House Mafia to the off-kilter sounds of Oneohtrix Point Never.
But alongside his decision to switch up the musical textures and to destroy some mementos from his career in the video for “Starboy,” he also altered his look by cutting off his trademark, Basquiat-style
“The vision wasn’t there anymore,” he explained. “It was there and then just like the music, it was getting really sad. It was the greatest feeling of all time [cutting it off]. It was so good.”
Although unburdened by his cumbersome hairstyle, The Weeknd wasn’t yet free of the darkness that’d defined his earlier work. And on the 2018EP My Dear Melancholy, a string of break-ups proved that he was still governed by his emotions.
In Abel’s estimations, the project wasn’t so much a concerted attempt to recapture the maudlin tones of his previous work, but a “cathartic piece of art.”
Prone to wearing his emotions on his sleeve, The Weeknd also informed TIME that he scrapped an entire album– which would’ve been a more logical progression from Starboy– after personal trauma took hold.
“Prior to Melancholy, I had a whole album written, done, which wasn’t melancholy at all because it was a different time in my life…It was very upbeat — it was beautiful. I don’t want to perform something that I don’t feel.”
Til this day, Abel has maintained that no shred of this project would ever reach the public eye.
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At previous junctures in his career, some felt that The Weeknd’s tendency to refer to himself as a “character” was a means of rebuffing some of the more troublesome aspects of his music. But in the lead-up to 2020’s After Hours, Abel made the distinction clearer than ever as he began to draw from a new, conceptual methodology.
Clad in a red blazer, leather gloves, and garish sunglasses, The Weeknd presented himself like never before and as the visuals for “Heartless” hit the internet, it became obvious that this man was a massive departure from Tesfaye himself. Instead, he was using himself as a vessel to tell a broader story.
“This character is having a really bad night,” he informed Variety, “and you can come with your own interpretation of what it is.”
Rendered in celestial, 80’s synth-pop indebted foundations, The Weeknd’s new music was among his most infectious and accessible of his career and landed him the “new number one song of all time” on Billboard’s greatest songs chart. Alongside, a story unraveled through the continued punishment that the “character” endured. By the time that Abel was heavily bandaged by all the violence he’d apparently sustained, The Weeknd took it upon himself to discuss the larger meaning behind what was playing out on-screen across both his videos and live performances.
“The significance of the entire head bandages is reflecting on the absurd culture of Hollywood celebrity and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated,” he told Variety.
Said to have gone “full-on film geek” with thinly veiled references to Chinatown, Jacob’s Ladder, and, of course, Martin Scorcese’s After Hours, the trailer for Dawn FM would suggest that the cinematic scale is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Abel also spoke in August about how he’d love to “depart and divide himself” from The Weeknd, describing it as a symbiotic relationship akin to that of Eddie Brock and Venom in Marvel Comics. Thus, his newfound tendency to don different characters could be read as a concerted effort to do just that.
Although we don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, it seems that by artificially aging himself on the cover of Dawn FM, The Weeknd, Abel, or both are once again seeking a new vantage point to create and draw inspiration from.
Firing on all cylinders as both a musical and visual artist, The Weeknd is clearly not looking to rest on his laurels anytime soon. As such, you can expect his new album to once again bring a whole host of new ideas into his celebrated canon and, in all likelihood, will continue to cement his legacy as one of the leading creative minds for an entire generation.