The Weeknd has quietly been growing in profile for more than a decade. Within the space of 10 years, he has grown from an industry outsider to one of the eminent names in pop. Despite this fame but remains modern music’s most mysterious figures.
The Story So Far
The son of Ethiopian immigrants, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye was born in Toronto, Canda. His recording career began when he paired withed producer Jeremy Rose to record The Weeknd’s first three singles. The songs were released to YouTube and reached only a small audience.
One of them, however, was Drake. Abel had met Drake while performing in Canda when both were still finding their paths to fame. With the endorsement of one of R&B’s most talked-about rising stars, as well as rave reviews from Pitchfork and The New York Times, The Weeknd quickly established a cult following. Between 2011 and 2012, Tesfaye released three mixtapes which further established his signature sound. They were collected as critically celebrated album Trilogy in November 2012. Abel was now was an underground sensation.
The Weeknd‘s next release, his first album proper, was 2013’s Kiss Land. It debuted at Number Two on Us album chart the Billboard 200 and sold 95,000 copies in its first week. The Weeknd also made several notable performances during this time, including three festival tours. Tesfaye also collaborated with pop stars Ariana Grande and Sia on the soundtrack for Hollywood blockbuster The Hunger Games. 2015 single ‘Earned It’ was a memorable addition to another soundtrack for Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Weeknd Moves Into the Mainstream
Tesfaye’s film work threw him out of his R&B niche and into the mainstream for the first time. ‘Earned It’ became a Top 10 single in 11 countries. Afterwards, The Weeknd performed at the 2016 Grammy Awards, where he won the award for best R&B performance.
‘Take Care’ was the first of four singles to be released from The Weeknd’s 2015 album, Beauty Behind the Madness. Two of these, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘The Hills’ would reach Number One on the US charts. The album merged The Weeknd’s dark and ambient sonics with pop production. Such a move can often see an artist stuck with the label of “selling out”. This was not the case for The Weeknd. He reached a more commercial audience without losing the approval of his underground fans. Second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness sold 300,000 copies on its release.
Fame Takes It Toll
The Weeknd’s transition into the mainstream appeared to take a toll on Tesfaye. The release of Daft Punk collaboration ‘Starboy’ was initially seen by some as a relatively generic club material. The further inspection, however, reveals something which has now become synonymous with The Weeknd’s work: a deeper sentiment hiding in plain sight.
“You talkin’ money, need a hearing aid,” Abel sings. “You talkin’ ’bout me, I don’t see the shade.” Tesfay clapping back at the critics and music fans he believes were (and likely still are) trying to put him in a box. The effects of this are reinforced in the phrase “Look what you’ve done“, repeated throughout. Its video depicts Abel destroying symbols of his past life and career. A new era of The Weeknd had begun.
The Weeknd Becomes a Parody of Self Parody
Even at this early stage of his career, Abel Tesfaye seemed self-aware that the most popular entertainers of any era inevitably fall victim to their own success. At the height of fame, they often lapse into the greatest creative sin of all, self-parody. Over the past few years, The Weeknd has worked on presenting himself to the world as a series of alter egos. The first was XO, then came Starboy. His latest, a nameless anti-hero, is a dark caricature of who he really is.
Over the past few years, The Weeknd has used to his music to tell the story of this almost villainous alter ego. 2020’s After Hours, was a masterful feat of storytelling and conceptual art. The album coincides with cinematic series of music videos and public performances which have shown show us some of The Weeknd’s most vulnerable takes on love, addiction and loss. This has all been done under the guise of an unnamed character who has been beaten, bloodied, wrapped in bandages and subject to a number of questionable cosmetic surgeries.
Abel has cleverly used theatrical sets and costumes, to comment on the nature of celebrity and fame. He has worked to subtly show the world the hollowness and absurdity of show business. All the while he has continued to explore his vulnerable side while in a highly public position.
In an era of confessional pop stars, who reveal ever aspect to their innermost lives to the world, Abel has remained mysterious and tight-lipped about what exactly it is he is doing. Why has his alter-ego’s story has been evolving the way it has? While Abel maintains this is no hoax, fans can only guess.
‘The Highlights’ is a Reassessment
Whatever the payoff for The Weeknd’s mysterious antihero, Tesfay has told an even more remarkable story through his music. The Highlights illustrates how masterfully Tesfaye has juggled innovation and originality while meeting the increasing demands of a pop audience. The Highlights includes tracks from the very beginning. Arriving days before the biggest performances of the Weekend’s career – one which has cost him a reported $7 million out of pocket to create and one which will present his music before more than 100 million fans – this collection is far from a Greatest Hits album.
Listening to The Weeknd’s earlier material, alongside megahit ‘Blinding Lights’ and other key hits from After Hours, casts his work in a new perspective. It is an abridged version of his remarkable career, a reminder that The Weeknd has remained true to his creative vision while consistently creating good music and rising to superstar status. This is what makes The Highlights album such a welcome release.
‘The Highlights’ Tracklist
1. SAVE YOUR TEARS
2. BLINDING LIGHTS
3. IN YOUR EYES
4. CAN’T FEEL MY FACE
5. I FEEL IT COMING FT. DAFT PUNK
6. STARBOY FT. DAFT PUNK
7. PRAY FOR ME FT. KENDRICK LAMAR
10. THE HILLS
11. CALL OUT MY NAME
12. DIE FOR YOU
13. EARNED IT
14. LOVE ME HARDER, ARIANA GRANDE & THE WEEKND
16. WICKED GAMES
17. THE MORNING
18. AFTER HOURS
The Weeknd 'The Highlights'7
The New King of Pop?
Old material holds up
He stayed true to his vison
No new album
Familiar territory for long time fans