Updated: May 27
The mysticity in which The Weeknd operates shrouds his undying stardom in pop culture. The melancholic persona that he portrays (pictured above) adds to the allure and mystery of one of the biggest stars in the last 10 years. By demystifying this character, we can see just how prominent his rise to stardom has been. From here, we dive into the life of the self-dubbed “King of the Fall”.
Sex, Drugs, and…Love?
The penultimate struggle of the millennial — trying to find love in an inebriated and untrustworthy world — is a central theme in all of Abel’s music. You could close your eyes and pick a song and sure enough it will fall under either sex, love, or drugs; most of the time, all three. I believe this is why The Weeknd’s signature sound is so alluring. He makes the addiction to sex, money, drugs, and love sound almost romantic in its influence to the listener. That is, those things being a singular physical entity, something that can pressure us just like a good (bad) friend.
Sex, as a topic in music, is often referenced in conjunction with the loss thereof, or the longing for a deeper connection to potential love interests. A rather uncoupled explanation for overt sexuality in music, especially in The Weeknd’s case, could be explained as a coping mechanism. Seeing sex as an object to alleviate the effects of trauma, rather than a “conquest” (as commonly recognized in contemporary masculinity), could explain why Tesfaye speaks so openly on sex. Sex sells right?
In reference to coping mechanisms, drugs are most common. According to Abel himself, he began using drugs at the age of 11. Substance abuse, especially at such an early age, can almost consume a persons entire identity and thereby become a byproduct of everything they produce. Drug references run rampant in The Weeknd’s music, perhaps most noticeably in the song “Can’t Feel My Face”. The song, rather than referring to being in a happy relationship, the “she” Tesfaye refers to is a stimulant drug, either ecstasy or cocaine. The double entendre throws the scent from the undesirable scent of drug addiction to a false facade pop anthem.
Love, while usually a desirable effect, is often of scrutiny or insecurity in Abel’s music. Especially recently, he harps deeply on love, or lack therof. Looking at the project My Dear Melancholy, Tesfaye speaks on his relationships with former flames, namely Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid. He often speaks in a melancholic tone riddled with regret when speaking of love interest. This is a gateway to the two aforementioned subjects; his failure to find and maintain love, is numbed and potentially nullified by his drug and sexual addiction.
With this addicting trio of themes, The Weeknd entices the listener with love, sex, and drugs — the most fundamental of subjects in pop music. However, he turns what we normally hear on its head and flexes his personal experience with a strong falsetto and glossy songwriting into a truly alluring experience. We always want to come back for more.
The Starpower of the Starboy As a perennial chart topper, The Weeknd has pumped out hit after hit, seemingly every year. The cyberpunk, dystopian genre displayed in Tesfaye’s discography consistently performs well in the charts. There seems to be a signature song in each studio album produced that falls under this genre and inevitably, explodes.
Kissland is, as the name implies, a futuristic roller coaster ride. It explores sex (of course) and the implication that “real love” in unattainable in contemporary society. Debuting and peaking at number two on the Billboard in 2013, this album has generally good reviews, though not the most popular of his work — he was still relatively new at this point. The alluring synth and 80s sampling makes this album an enticing listen, especially for first time listeners. The signature song on this album, “Wanderlust”, includes the aforementioned features. With the sample from Fox the Fox, included in the chorus, he urges his “precious little diamond” to consider spending the night together because of her eternal urge to find the next thing (wanderlust). The tone exhibited in this song essentially personifies the entire album and goes on to provide a mystifying experience.
Beauty Behind the Madness (BBTM) is where The Weeknd officially exploded in popularity. Aided by the release of the most popular songs of their respective years, “Often” and “The Hills”, BBTM debuted at number one on the Billboard — selling over 400k in its first week. However, even with this newfound success, some critics were not convinced. According to one critic: “He may have softened his edge, upped the production and pulled in the stars, but The Weeknd remains an outsider,” (NME, April Clare Welsh). I suppose if you look anywhere beside the music at hand, they could be correct. A private type of person that only sings about sex, drugs and love could be viewed as an “outsider”. However, it’d be naive to think that this emerging star would forever remain an outsider.
Starboy was a noticeably different era of Abel Tesfaye. In juxtaposition to his normal, gloomy approach to music, Starboy was completely eccentric and fueled by multiple heart racing songs. This album seemed like it was almost exclusively produced to prove that he isn’t just a niche artist and is capable of total airwave takeover. The starboy was looking for star power and found it. Features from Daft Punk, Future, Lana del Ray, and Kendrick Lamar solidified this as one of the most popular albums of 2016. However, among lifelong XO fans, this album was a shot in the dark and wasn’t particularly well received. It was divergent of the melancholic music traditionally associated with The Weeknd. Abel intentionally produced a happier, more eccentric genre of music simply because he was happier. It’s worth noting that Abel wasn’t entirely convinced in making this an actual album: “it was more about individual songs and in the midst of that I didn’t really care about making an actual body of work,” (King Kong magazine).
Lastly, After Hours, welcomes the most recent addition to the eclectic artist’s repertoire. Here we are introduced to a specific story, that primarily divulges from the arrival of The Weeknd to Las Vegas. This album explores more topics beyond the common big three: regret, heartbreak, loneliness as a result, and willingness to leave and let go. It is a clear departure from former versions of Abel. It seems sad, but not as depressing — if that makes sense. Tesfaye seems to be coming full circle in realizing the pattern of success, fame, and fortune. He seems content in finally settling down, as hinted in the song “After Hours”. Will we see a different Abel going foward?
After Hours Aftermath Despite being one of the most listened to albums of the year, including the biggest single in Billboard history (Blinding Lights), The Weeknd was not nominated for a single Grammy award for After Hours. This may have to do with some contractual differences while negotiating to perform for the award show, however it is inexcusable to not include the best music in a music based award show. Despite this, Tesfaye announced on Instagram that he will be performing during halftime of the Superbowl — certainly a good consolation prize. So what’s next? Most likely of highest importance is the postponed After Hours world tour that would have featured Sabrina Claudio, Don Toliver, and Black Atlass. Originally planned for midsummer 2020, the new start date has recently been announced. Starting January of 2022, The Weeknd has announced that he will be going on a world tour. It will conclude in April/May 2022.
Outside of his music influence, The Weeknd has featured in multiple television shows including The Simpson’s and American Dad and a movie with Adam Sandler — Uncut Gems. It has also been rumored that he is working on a “secretive screenplay”. It’s unclear what exactly this project is but it may be coming soon. Abel also says he could have another album ready as soon as quarantine is over (Rolling Stone). While lofty expectations, with an artist of this caliber, more music is sure to be coming soon.