I’ve recently discovered and can’t stop listening to the music of The Weeknd, a singular Canadian talent who is rapidly becoming one of the biggest acts on the planet. The 25-year old singer, songwriter and producer is known for his dark, hypnotic R&B, angelic pop voice and lewd lyrics. In 2011, he was a relatively obscure Toronto artist. Today, he has been called “pop’s prince of darkness” and “the songbird of his generation”.
His single “Can’t feel my face” was recently #1 on the Billboard charts (dethroned this week by fellow Canadian, Justin Bieber). At the 2015 Juno Awards, he won the awards for Artist of the Year, and for the last two years, R&B/Soul Recording of the Year. His newly released album, The Beauty behind the Madness, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. On July 25th 2015, The Weeknd was also the first artist in history to own the top three spots on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Can’t Feel My Face” at #1, “The Hills” at #2 and “Earned It” at #3.
See him perform live here at a sold out show at the O2 Arena in London:
I first heard of the Weeknd on the Hunger Games Soundtrack with the track, “Devil May Cry”, and also more famously on the 50 Shades of Grey movie soundtrack with “Earned It”. I could not help myself from buying his newly released album, The Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), Kiss Land (2013) and Trilogy (2012), all in one week, as well a ticket to his upcoming sold-out concert in Montreal on November 24th.
Gothic R&B sound, angelic voice and lewd lyrics
The first time I heard The Weeknd sing, I was immediately captivated by the purest, saddest and angelic voice I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley. The Weeknd has an unusually high vocal range, has a beautifully clear falsetto. His pleading tone, delicate vibrato and even his diction are remarkably similar to Michael Jackson’s, which he cites as a major influence along with Prince and R Kelly. His voice elegantly meanders around the melodies in Arabic-influenced melisma of the Ethiopian singers that he heard at home throughout his youth.
“[He has] surely the highest, saddest voice ever to come from a compulsive womaniser and near-sociopathic hedonist” – The Guardian
His distinct sound is sinister and sensual, blending soul, R&B, hip hop, trip hop, electronica and Ethiopian influences. His pure, high and melodic singing is coupled with beautifully produced layers of hypnotic slow beats, deep bass and melancholic minor keys. The combination of influences makes for a dark and dystopian soundscape, fraught with alienation and profound sadness. Yet the clarity and emotion in his singing insinuates the possibility of redemption, of finding himself and choosing love.
In the song “Rolling Stone”, The Weeknd foreshadows his rise to fame and sings: “Baby I got you/Until you’re used to my face/And my mystery fades”:
While at first I found The Weeknd’s lyrics disconcerting and ignorant, they have definitely grown on me; they’re edgy, original and just seem to “work” perfectly with his music and style. He sings candidly about casual sex, drugs and partying, but also alienation and doubt, the impossibility of relationships and his hesitancy to embrace love. He equally addresses and love and loss, pleasure and pain, hope and despair. The Weeknd calls it the “honest and disturbing truth. What young men think but will never say out loud”.
“Bring your love baby / I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby / I can bring my pain” – The Weeknd on Wicked Games
He often uses a freestyle or stream-of-consciousness singing when composing vocal tracks for his songs. The 8-min long song Gone is entirely freestyle, along with much of his 2011 mixtape, Thursday. He speaks about his songwriting process:
“I’ll make the music first and loop it, and then I’ll go into the booth and start singing almost 45 minutes straight. And these are not words; this is gibberish. It’s a songwriter language. There are lyrics on Thursday, I don’t even know what the fuck I said. “Gone” was a complete freestyle.” – The Weeknd
From drop-out to superstar
The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, and was raised by his mother and grandmother. His parents moved from Ethiopia to Toronto in the 1980s when famine, drought and civil war left at least 1.4 million Ethiopians dead. Tesfaye’s father was not around, his mom was working constantly, and he was mostly raised by his grandmother. His first language was Amharic, Ethiopia’s main language, in which he is still fluent until this day.
Tesfaye dropped out of high school at 17, and convinced his friend and producer La Mar Taylor to do the same. He got his stage name, The Weeknd because he “left one weekend and never came home” to move into a one-bedroom apartment in Parkdale (Toronto) with some of his friends.
They survived on welfare checks and shoplifting, and spent most of their nights partying. They were eventually evicted, leaving Tesfaye broke and homeless. He’d seduce women in order to have a place to sleep, but eventually found a job at American Apparel. It was then that he started prolifically writing and recording music.
“Only losers go to school / I taught myself how to move / I’m not the type to count on you / Because stupid’s next to “I love you”” – Losers, The Weeknd
I was broken, I was broken, I was so broke / I used to roam around the town when I was homeless – Tell Your Friends, The Weeknd
He created a large fan base in 2011 by self-releasing three “mixtapes” in one year comprising 31 songs: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, also known as the “Balloons Trilogy”. He posted many of his tracks on Youtube, keeping his persona enigmatic and unknown, using only shadowy photos as backdrops to his songs.
His legendary breakout show at Toronto’s Mod Club
The Weeknd showed his face for the very first time to his fans when he played his first official show on July 24, 2011 at the Mod Club in Toronto. The show was announced 10 days earlier and tickets could only be purchased in-person at a shoe store in downtown Toronto. There was already so much buzz around him that the show completely sold out in 90 minutes, with scalpers getting up to 300$ and hundreds arriving hours early. The flyer indicated and “no guest list, no cameras, no media”.
His audience, who had never seen his face before that night, knew every word to every song. The energy at the Mod Club is palpable in the following video, where he sings his first song of the evening, “High for This”:
The Weeknd’s buzz caught the attention of Toronto-based rapper Drake who posted some of The Weeknd’s tracks on his website and had him perform at the OVO Festival in 2011, which helped generate even more interest. Drake and The Weeknd went on to produce several songs together including, Crew Love, Live for and The Zone.
The Weeknd would then refuse interviews for several years, communicating mainly through Twitter and through his blog. Ironically, he’s now featured in two bizarre Apple commercials (Part 1 and part 2), with John Travolta as his limo driver who takes him to an after-party.
In 2012, he signed a record deal with Republic Records in a partnership with his own label, XO, and released a remastered compilation of his mixtapes called Trilogy. That year, he began his first tour and performed at US and European festivals.
“I got a brand new place, I think I’ve seen it twice all year / I can’t remember how it looks inside, so you can picture how my life’s been / I went from starin’ at the same four walls for 21 years / To seein’ the whole world in just twelve months” – Kiss Land, The Weeknd
His Ethiopian heritage
The Weeknd has been exposed to Ethiopia’s music his whole life and its influence is evident in his unique sound. In his first music video, The Knowing (2011), The Weeknd addresses his Ethiopian heritage in a strange apocalyptic collage set in Addis Ababa in the 1970’s. He was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize that same year.
In the song The Hills, from his most recent album, The Beauty Behind the Madness, a woman’s voice sings in Amharic, The Weeknd’s native tongue,”Ewedihalew, yene konjo, ewedihalew/ yene fikir fikir fikir, yene fikir fikir fikir,” which means, : “I love you, my beauty, I love you/ my love love love, my love love love.”
“My mother, my grandmother, my uncles would play Ethiopian artists like Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke all the time in the house.” – The Weeknd
The Weeknd is also familiar with singer Teddy Afro, who is one of Ethiopia’s most popular artists. His lyrics, sung in Amharic, are remarkably similar to The Weeknd’s songs of love, loss and self-loathing. The song “Nigeregn Kalshign” is a mournful love song where Afro sings in similar range to The Weeknd in Arabic-influenced melisma,”If I leave you, I’ll be afraid to live/ After all, for how long will I be able to?”
What’s next for The Weeknd?
The Weeknd speaks of celebrating excesses that are intrinsically bound to a feeling of self-loathing, spiritual emptiness and a deep pervasive sadness. He no doubt has the ability to continue prolifically producing innovative music, and has the gift of his exceptional voice. My worry is that at such a young age he will not know how to manoever his own personal growth and his evolution as an artist in the midst of the chaos and seduction of fame. It’s a priviledged yet dangerous position to be in. I think the only way forward for him is to remember his roots, his family and where he came from in order to navigate his new reality.
There’s hope: in his Reddit AMA (ask me anything), he answers the question:
Who inspires you to keep making music?
The Weeknd: “My friends….and my mom”.