chieving global pop-star success while remaining shrouded in mystery is a feat few contemporary musicians manage. The Weeknd, who tonight will headline the Super Bowl halftime show in Tampa, Florida, is one of them.
A decade ago, this might have seemed far-fetched. The Canadian artist was so publicity shy around the release of his 2011 trilogy mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes of Silence) that fans had no idea what he looked like. Even the music was murky: hedonistic R&B swirling with eerie synths and buzzing guitars that pierced through muffled percussion. Abel Tesfaye’s beatific, octave-spanning tenor was initially a cause for insecurity – encouragement from his childhood friend La Mar Taylor (now his creative director) led to him using his vocals on tracks. His earliest songs became popular enough on YouTube that they would be played while Tesfaye was folding T-shirts for his job at an American Apparel store.
Wider recognition seemed to follow swiftly, although Tesfaye has said he did experience setbacks. He contributed to fellow Canadian star Drake’s 2011 album, Take Care, and signed to Republic Records a year later, re-releasing his mixtapes as 2012’s Trilogy compilation. His 2013 debut, Kiss Land, peaked at No 2 on the US Billboard charts, but this reportedly disappointed Tesfaye and his label’s expectations. A follow-up, 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, offered a more aggressive pop sound and slicker production that was cinematic in scope; pop titans Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey came onboard for collaborations. The album went triple-platinum, while single “Can’t Feel My Face” – written and produced with Swedish pop svengali Max Martin – became a summer hit and scooped two Grammy nominations. It was also put up for a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award – an odd choice considering its subject matter (having a numb face from taking so much cocaine), but less so given the song’s obscenely catchy nature. Tesfaye’s sultry jam “Earned It”, meanwhile, promoted that year’s blockbuster, Fifty Shades of Grey, a film with just one redeeming feature: the soundtrack.
Tesfaye frequently appears conflicted about this success. Being a major pop star clashes with the image he’s spent years cultivating – that of a sulky, brooding anti-hero, whose themes often circled around drug-use, affairs and late-night hook-ups. He later addressed this on “Reminder”, a song from his 2016 album Starboy, on which he sings: “I just won a new award for a kids’ show/ Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag a blow/ I’m like goddamn bitch, I am not a Teen Choice.” On “Tell Your Friends”, he recalls a cousin asking for a selfie at a funeral while reminiscing about a time he and Taylor would steal shoes. In a Rolling Stone interview last year, he spoke wistfully of a period living in New York, after the release of 2018’s EP My Dear Melancholy, where he “got to be a normal person – go to coffee shops, write, meet new people at the bar or in the streets, make new friendships”.
In the same interview, however, he acknowledged the viral success of a song such as “Blinding Lights” (from 2020’s After Hours). The song has its own TikTok dance and managed to go viral without the cringe-inducing try-hard campaigning by artists such as Justin Bieber and his inane single “Yummy”. “We work really hard, like everyone else, to maintain that mystique and maintain our original sound, and still cross over and bring it with us,” Tesfaye said. “Sometimes, your f***ing stars just line up.”
Tesfaye’s love affair with Hollywood drives his highly visual artistic flair. A self-confessed film geek, he inserts multiple movie references into his music as well as in the accompanying videos. This was most evident in his (still ongoing) campaign for After Hours, in which he stars as a bloodied and bruised character “having a really bad night”. The story was unveiled in chronological order with each single release, beginning with “Heartless” and continuing through to “Too Late”. There are nods to Chinatown (with his broken nose); psychological thriller Jacob’s Ladder during a subway scene; Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy during his in-character Jimmy Kimmel appearance; Possession; a Dressed to Kill moment in an elevator; and, most obviously, Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours, from which Tesfaye’s album takes its name. The campaign drew praise from as far afield as Sparks, the avant-garde pop duo, who told The Independent in an interview last year that The Weeknd was one of the few contemporary pop artists they admired. In 2019, he cameoed in Adam Sandler’s career-best film Uncut Gems, with Sandler and Lakeith Stanfield engaging in fisticuffs at one of his shows.
With a few exceptions, Tesfaye separates the real world from the one his music inhabits. It was noted in a Guardian interview in 2015 that he has a habit of illustrating his points with movie references. “I had to learn everything from TV,” Tesfaye explained, recalling a lonely childhood with just him and his mother in the house. While visually disturbing, videos such as “Too Late” (which presumably takes its name from the equally movie-referencing 2015 film) have a surrealist quality that satirises the distorted sense of reality still pervasive in Hollywood.
It’s a shame that Tesfaye’s music has frequently been tainted by casual misogyny. While he appears to have pared back a little in recent years, After Hours still included songs like “Heartless”, which opens with the charming: “Never need a bitch/ I’m what a bitch need.” On his standalone single “Lost in the Fire” with French producer Gesaffelstein, he drew widespread condemnation for lyrics in which he tells his partner, who believes she might be attracted to other women, to “bring a friend” so “I can f*** you straight”. Tesfaye did not respond to the criticism, but a tweet posted a day after the controversy erupted said there would be “no more daytime music”. Yet this lyric was abysmal not just for its cheap and blatant biphobia and homophobia, but because Tesfaye is more than capable of expressing himself without needing to cause offence.
“I love villains, they’re the best characters in movies, right?” Tesfaye said, responding to criticism of certain lyrics in 2015. Last year he expanded on this, telling Esquire: “It’s definitely a character. When you hear some of the drastic stuff, you can tell. I mean, that’s why it’s tricky, because it is me singing the words; it is my writing. It’s like you want people to feel a certain way. You want them to feel angry. You want them to feel sad. You want them to feel. It’s never my intent to offend anybody.” It’s easier to believe that Tesfaye is writing as a character than it is for say, Eminem, whose songs make frequently violent and misogynist attacks on real-life women, from his ex-girlfriend to Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey and Lindsay Lohan. But character or not, there’s not excusing it.
After Hours is one of Tesfaye’s most brilliantly conceived albums to date, which makes his now-infamous snub from the 2021 Grammy nominations sting all the more. “The Grammys remain corrupt,” he tweeted after the news broke. “You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.” Later, though, he seemed to decide he was going to manage just fine without them, sharing an Instagram post with the caption: “Never need a Grammy, I’m what a Grammy needs.” He’s not wrong – it’s bizarre that the Recording Academy would choose to ignore an artist who is, essentially, their ideal. Tesfaye is both commercially viable – one of the most successful pop artists in over a decade – and artistically credible. When he headlines the Super Bowl – the biggest stage in the world – I wonder if the Recording Academy might end up regretting their omission.