The Weeknd’s rise from Underground Hero to Pop Icon

When I first heard The Weeknd in 2012, I had no idea that eight+ years later, he would be my greatest musical love. The song was “D.D.”, also known as “Dirty Diana”, a cover of the Michael Jackson song from his 1987 album Bad. To sing a Michael Jackson song and survive is no small feat. Mariah Carey did it. Stevie Wonder did it. And have no doubt: The Weeknd deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those two incredible artists. Abel Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd, is in 2021, one of the most successful, famous and celebrated artists in the world. In 2011, when he released his first mixtape, House of Balloons, it was by no means a sure thing. This is the story of how The Weeknd went from Underground Hero to Pop Icon.


You don't know what's in store
But you know what you're here for
Close your eyes, lay yourself beside me
Hold tight for this ride
We don't need no protection
Come alone, we don't need attention

Open your hand, take a glass
Don't be scared, I'm right here
Even though, you don't roll
Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this


With the exception of The-Dream and Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, R&B prior to the release of House of Balloons was in bad shape. The depth and variety of the early 00s had faded to leave few artists making music of note. R. Kelly continued to put out top tier music, but there were few artists who were pushing the boundaries of what R&B could be. The genre had fallen into a comfortable, dead-end space. Please don’t misunderstand me: The Weeknd did not change the genre all on his own. A listen to The-Dream’s masterpiece, Love King, from the year before The Weeknd debuted, displayed a considerably forward thinking reworking of the genre, that was in many ways the proof of concept for the whole endeavour. The release of Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” in July of 2011 likewise showed that the creative rebirth of R&B had more than one architect. It was House of Balloons though that truly signaled that the old ways were well and truly over, and the beginning of a fearless, astonishingly creative and progressive R&B. It is not hyperbole to say that The Weeknd’s debut mixtape is the most influential R&B album of the last ten years, as well as being an exceptional work of art in any genre or medium.

Looking at PARTYNEXTDOOR or dvsn and you see artists who would not be doing the music they are without House of Balloons. This is not a slight on them, or their talent. When Marvin Gaye dropped What’s Going On or when Stevie Wonder dropped Innervisions, it influenced and inspired a slew of people who were entranced by the sounds that they are hearing for the first time. The amount of good music that has been made off the back of The Weeknd’s debut is incredible to think on. When Beyonce (!) is imitating you, as on “Drunk In Love” you know you have truly changed the game.

It was not alone that The Weeknd changed R&B forever on House of Balloons, his collaborators and producers were key in defining the sound for which he would be known: Doc McKinney, Illangelo and the first and initially overlooked, Jeremy Rose. This gets into contentious areas, which is not where I want this piece to go, but it is important to lay out the basics. Jeremy Rose is a Canadian producer who met Abel through mutual friends. Rose had been kicking around a “dark R&B” project and Abel seemed like a good fit. The two collaborated and produced four songs together: “What You Need” “Loft Music”, "The Party" and an alternate version of “The Morning”. Then things went sour. It is unclear of all the ins and outs, given that we only really possess Rose’s version of events, but it resulted in Rose not getting initial credit for the work upon House of Balloons’ release. He was subsequently credited upon the commercial release of Trilogy, the collection of The Weeknd’s three mixtapes. Anyway, Rose is, however you slice it, an important figure in the creation of the sound of The Weeknd and the reinvention of R&B into what it is today.

House of Balloons is a concept album, in the truest spirit. “This is a happy house...” an ironic shot at the excess and morally skewed chaos, but also a truthful expression of the elation to be, as Hunter S. Thompson might put it, “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave”. Oh to have been there at that point in time... The Weeknd’s music has the habit of making people uncomfortable, whether they identify as being of the left or the right, or somewhere in between. It is provocative, transgressive music. When Abel sings, “Ringtone on silent, and if she stops then I might get violent,” on “The Party and The After Party”, it is a jarring moment that is at odds with the beauty of the vocal and production. This dichotomy pushes and pulls the listener to be at once seduced and repelled, a reflection of the environment in which the music was made. It glorifies the elation of being in that moment, and in being a profoundly beautiful song we are somehow made complicit. This is something that goes through much of The Weeknd’s music, including major Pop hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy”. Even last year’s mega hit “Blinding Lights” has a melancholic edge to it that hits almost as hard as its delirious synth line. We know the high is artificial, and the come down will be hell.

An often mentioned aspect of House of Balloons that was seen as unusual upon release, given that its genre was ostensibly R&B, were the numerous samples that populated the album, or rather the genres from which the samples came. While there was one R&B song sampled on the original mixtape release – Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” on the opening to “What You Need” – all samples on the commercial release were from genres well away from what R&B artists were known for up until that point: Beach House, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Cocteau Twins all featured. (This could be seen as a low-key bit of racist assumptions about what young black men should like, but whatever, let’s not get tangled up in that.) The soundscapes of House of Balloons are dark, expansive and full of terror, brief moments of relief coming in the form of “The Morning” and the first section of “The Party and The After Party”. The samples are woven into the fabric of the album and are never used as a crutch.

House of Balloons is a masterpiece of tone and vision, in its exploration of the dark side of love and lust, and most certainly taken as an overall production. Abel’s voice rivals other greats like Michael, Prince or Stevie, imbuing every phrase with an understated and detached sense of cool, all filtered through a haze of hash smoke, uppers, downers and a sensuality that marks The Weeknd as a once in a generation vocal talent. The beauty of Abel’s voice is perhaps the key to the whole endeavour. All respect to the incredible producers and collaborators featured here, but I have a feeling that without Abel as the centrepiece, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the power and vitality it does. Whoever came up with the concept of The Weeknd first is then, if not irrelevant, then not the only fact worth considering. One worth thinking on, is that many have tried to imitate The Weeknd in the years since House of Balloons dropped, and not one has surpassed him. Even more salient is that in the years since, Abel has continued to evolve in sound and subject matter, branching into straight up love songs – “True Colors" – slow jams – “As You Are” – and vibrant, New Disco Funk tinged Pop – “Can’t Feel My Face”.

The album’s greatest moments come through the creation of an atmosphere that is overpowering, in its beauty and its expression of vice; of a sweet, dangerous kind of love. There is something so fragile about this music, even as it is centred on mindless sex and drug use, there is something quieter, under the surface, that often brings tears to my eyes. “Wicked Games” is still played by The Weeknd and his band at live shows – remember those? - and for good reasons. It was the earliest song that really caught on with one toe in the water, casual fans – no offence though I promise you – and really caught the imagination of listeners. It is in many ways, The Weeknd’s manifesto. The Weeknd has never been afraid to appear vulnerable, and the lyrics of the song really get to the heart of who he is. “Wicked Games” is the passing of time, of the corrosion of feelings that were once so strong they dictated the direction of every day. The inevitability that nothing lasts forever, no matter how many times we say it. Tonight, though let’s pretend:

I left my girl back home
I don't love her no more
And she'll never fucking know that
These fucking eyes that I'm staring at
Let me see that ass
Look at all this cash
And I emptied out my cards too
Now I'm fucking leaning on that

Bring your love, baby, I could bring my shame
Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain
I got my heart right here
I got my scars right here
Bring the cups, baby, I could bring the drank
Bring your body, baby, I could bring you fame
And that's my motherfucking words too
Just let me motherfucking love you

Listen, ma, I'll give you all I got
Get me off of this, I need confidence in myself
Ohh, listen, ma, I'll give you all of me
Give me all of it, I need all of it to myself
So tell me you love me
(Only for tonight, only for the night)
Even though you don't love me
Just tell me you love me
(I'll give you what I need, I'll give you all of me)
Even though you don't love me...

Pleading, desperation. The need to feel loved by someone. Underneath all the showmanship and Pop Star bravado, is this man, running through every album and every song. Whether it is a Massive Pop Hit like “Blinding Lights” or “Can’t Feel My Face”, or a coarse but brilliant guest verse on Ty Dolla $ign’s filthy but very enjoyable “Or Nah” or a song custom built for mass consumption like the remarkably well crafted Ariana Grande song, “Love Me Harder”, The Weeknd is a man who is out there on the edge, a few steps away from breaking down and being swallowed up by the world that birthed him. He is then, all of us. It is this most of all that defines The Weeknd, something that House of Balloons expressed with such precision and excellence. As Abel would sing on “Ordinary Life” from Starboy:

Valhalla is where all the righteous are led
Mulholland's where all the damned will be kept
Devil on my lap and a cross on my neck
Cross on my neck, cross on my neck
Over 45, I'ma drift on a bend
Do a buck 20, I'ma fly off the edge
Everybody said it would hurt in the end
Hurt in the end, but I feel nothin'

She said that she'll pray for me
I said, "It's too late for me"
Cause I think it's safe to say...

This ain't ordinary life
This ain't ordinary life
This ain't ordinary life

Thursday followed House of Balloons in August of 2011. Although not as immediately satisfying as the mixtape that preceded it, Thursday is a superb album, both as a follow-up and as an album in its own right. Highlights include the opening track, “Lonely Star”, “The Birds Part II” and the epic and ridiculously sensual, “Gone”.

It seems like pain and regret are your best friends
Cause everything you do leads to them, why?

Thursday has a strong thematic thread running through it, as well as lyrical call backs. It is arguably the most outrightly conceptual of the Trilogy, with each song building on the story. This brings me to an interesting quote from Abel, around the release of After Hours:

"With After Hours, I got to actually sit back and listen to what I was making,” he explained. “Starboy was an extension of Beauty Behind The Madness and I jumped in right away and it was more about individual songs and in the midst of that I didn’t really care about making an actual body of work. But what I do best are albums. I’m thankful for the success of Starboy, but I needed to get back to my roots of story telling with After Hours.”

Storytelling is what Thursday so excels at, perhaps even more so than the mixtapes of which it sits in the middle. The Weeknd’s ability to craft a world in which the listener can become immersed, is what separates him from his peers.

Echoes of Silence is the final mixtape of Trilogy and is far too often overlooked in favour of the two albums that preceded it, but it is a powerful bit of work. The run of songs that starts with “Montreal” and ends with “Initiation” is perhaps the best on any of the three mixtapes. “I got a test for you...” Echoes of Silence is the darkest of the Trilogy, both in its sound and in its lyrical content, but this is perhaps why it resonates so much with me. It might be shocking to the casual listener who knows The Weeknd for his glorious and upbeat Pop hits, that he could explore such unsettling areas, but this is a large part of his genius. Like Prince before him – especially The Purple One’s alter-ego Camille – The Weeknd explores the dark side that exists within us all, and in doing so allows a powerful catharsis. There is also undoubtedly an element of Horror to the whole thing that has the same attraction as some of the great movies of the genre.

It is sometimes frustrating to hear people saying things like “He sold out” or variations on that theme. He put out three albums in the same year, of the same style. Did you really want him to stay in that box for the rest of his career? As we move forward through The Weeknd’s discography and examine it deeper, it is important to keep this fact in mind: The Weeknd was created in House of Balloons, but Abel Tesfaye is so much more than a “dark R&B” singer. His voice and his humanity cannot be replicated by others, and many have tried. It is his closeness to that edge that makes his music so unusual and so compelling, no matter the genre in which it operates. What makes House of Balloons so special, then as now, is that those involved fearlessly followed The Muse, no matter where it went. The Weeknd’s journey through three mixtapes, four studio albums and one EP, is of a piece with House of Balloons. It is The Muse that one should keep their eye on, not the apparent genre. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, The Weeknd. The Weeknd is R&B, yes. But like the other legends mentioned here, he is also more than just the genre he makes music in. The only thing I expect or require from The Weeknd is for him to follow that Muse no matter where it goes.

It's ideal, oh
You need someone to tell you how to feel
And you think your happiness is real
There's so much more the world has to reveal
But you choose to be concealed
So you're somebody now
But what's a somebody in a nobody town
I don't think you even know it
So you're somebody now
But what's a somebody in a nobody town
You made enough to quit a couple years ago
But it consumes you
It's everywhere you go
And just the thought alone got you trippin'
Got you losing your mind
And I don't blame you
It's everything you know
But I own this time, this ain't new
Now I decide when we're through.

Kiss Land, was released in September of 2013, and while it did not sell nearly as well as it should have, its stature has only grown in the years since and it is a serious contender for the best album of the last decade, as well as arguably being The Weeknd’s greatest work. Kiss Land, the official album debut of The Weeknd – because mixtapes aren’t albums even though they clearly are - is now seen as a continuation of the sound of Trilogy but it wasn’t at the time, and while it shares many of the same themes, the sound is far brighter and more vibrant. The album goes deeper than Trilogy, in exploring the psychology of the singer and as The Weeknd has said, “So much pain”.

Kiss Land was largely produced by DannyBoyStyles, DaHeala, and The Weeknd himself, with Silkky Johnson taking the reins on the title track. For as much as I loved Trilogy, it was this album that made me XO for life. It is an astonishing, heartbreaking, awe inspiring work of art and one that is even more profound now than it was at release. It is unflinching in how it looks at despair, crushing loneliness and the loss of one’s soul, all expressed through music that was on the bleeding edge of song-writing and production. Kiss Land is an album, first and foremost, and is designed to be listened to, from start to finish, with no breaks. This again goes back to storytelling as the best way to describe the particular talent that The Weeknd has in crafting these soundscapes that immerse the listener in a different world, or perhaps one that it is disturbingly familiar.

From the opening of “Professional”, Abel puts his heart and soul on the line. To be this honest with oneself and those we love is rare to find, and this perhaps accounts for the emotional complexity that is to be found on every second of Kiss Land. In this way the album reminds me of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: there is a sophistication to the album that is not only present in the production and writing, but in the way in which the emotions of the singer are communicated to the listener. It would not surprise me to find out that Abel was a fan of Brian Wilson’s music, their falsettos being equally fragile/powerful in how they express the special kind of pain of being in love.

As I said above, Kiss Land is to be taken as a whole, with no skips. There are no bad songs on the album, but I have to mention those which have a particularly special place in my heart. “The Town” is a song that makes me cry, it is so beautiful. I love the smoothness of the opening, and then the raucous, off-kilter piano section, elucidating the chaos that can come in the middle of a pure and perfect love. “Belong To The World” is The Weeknd at his most provocative and fearless. It is, five minutes or not, also a brilliant single. The hook is so powerful, soaring and hitting hard. The beat, borrowed from Portishead’s “Machine Gun”, is like a knock-out punch, leaving the listener on the floor.

I know you want your money, girl
'Cause you do this every day, okay
The way you doubt your feelings
And look the other way
Well, it's something I relate to
Your gift of nonchalance
But nobody's ever made me fall in love
With this amount of touch, well

I'm not a fool
I just love that you're dead inside
I'm not a fool, I'm just lifeless too
But you taught me how to feel
When nobody ever would
And you taught me how to love
When nobody ever could

Ooh girl, I know I should leave you
And learn to mistreat you
'Cause you belong to the world
And ooh girl, I wanna embrace you
Domesticate you
But you belong to the world
You belong to the world.

The video of the song was inspired by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, as was the album as a whole. The closing song, “Tears in the Rain”, paraphrases Rutger Hauer’s improvised addition to his closing monologue. It is not hard to see how the themes of Scott’s masterpiece could have influenced the writing on Kiss Land. The idea of looking like a real human, but being treated as less than, as one without a soul, is integral to Kiss Land. Not only to degrade others, but to degrade oneself. And the secret is of course, that replicants are more human than human. In being honest about his actions, and how the hole in his heart leads him to hurt others, in expressing himself so purely, he proves that he is more than the monster he sees in the mirror.

For many years Abel saw Kiss Land as a failure. It was clearly not the massive breakout hit that he intended and hoped it would be. It is not unusual for an artist to have bad feelings attached to a project, clearly as personal and as heartfelt as this. Brian Wilson’s relationship to the “lost” album SMiLE comes to mind. The hurt was so deep at its failure that thinking about it brought up such strong emotions that it was too hard to even talk about it. In August of 2020, following a surge in purchases of Kiss Land, brought on by passionate and hardcore XO fans, Abel finally embraced the album again after nearly seven years. On his Apple Music show Memento Mori, he played the album, as well as songs that inspired the sound and most importantly, unreleased tracks from the Kiss Land sessions.

In late 2013, I saw The Weeknd perform in Manchester, England. He played many of the songs from Kiss Land, as well as tracks from Trilogy. It remains the greatest live performance I have ever seen, including seeing Prince in 2010, Bob Dylan twice, and even the life altering sights and sounds of Brian Wilson performing the completed SMiLE. To be XO is to be passionate about The Weeknd’s music, and how it unites us all, and not to have been the first to hear “What You Need” or to pretend like The Noise is your favourite album. Those in attendance that night in Manchester were witness to a talent that would soon take its place alongside the greats. We were not surprised when the underground sensation became a worldwide phenomenon.

Last year I did all the politicking, this year I’ma focus on the vision.

2014 saw The Weeknd release two songs and feature on one that would change the entire direction of his career. The latter would see Abel feature on a song by Ariana Grande called “Love Me Harder”. The song was a fair hit, peaking at number seven on the Billboard 100. Even more important than the exposure to a crowd who were not well acquainted with The Weeknd however, was the co-writer of the song: Max Martin. Max Martin is a tremendously successful and talented writer and producer, who would play a major role in what was to follow for The Weeknd. The two songs The Weeknd released under his own name were the hard hitting “King of the Fall” – a personal favourite of mine – and what would end up being the first single of the follow-up to Kiss Land, “Often”. “Often” didn’t sound a million miles away from Kiss Land: a wonderfully coarse and addictive song with an incredible hook. Released in July of 2014, we would have to wait a full year and a bit before we would hear the album on which “Often” belonged. In August 2015, Beauty Behind the Madness dropped, bringing with it a slew of hits, including “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)” – his first top 5 single – “The Hills” – a number one hit – and the song that changed it all forever, “Can’t Feel My Face”.

“Can’t Feel My Face”, co-written and co-produced by Max Martin was unarguably the solo breakout hit for which The Weeknd was looking. The song is a delirious ode to the music of Michael Jackson, while undoubtedly being a product of the mind of Abel Tesfaye. While the hook, vocal and production seduce the innocent, The Weeknd tells a story of weird, drug fuelled mania.

And I know she'll be the death of me
At least we'll both be numb
And she'll always get the best of me
The worst is yet to come
But at least we'll both be beautiful and stay forever young
This I know, yeah, this I know

She told me, "don't worry about it"
She told me, "don't worry no more"
We both know we can't go without it
She told me, "you'll never be alone", oh, oh, woo

I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh
I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh.

This is one reason why I would never say anything close to “The Weeknd sold out”, not only because people who say things like that are invariably colossal dullards, but because it isn’t even close to being true. While it is fair to say that The Weeknd became a mega-star when he teamed up with Max Martin, he did so on his own terms and without diluting or compromising his vision. As mentioned earlier, Abel was following the foot-steps of the greats before him who did not restrict themselves to one style – if it was good enough for Prince and Michael Jackson to change up styles, it is good enough for The Weeknd.

Beauty Behind the Madness was, at the time, something of a mild disappointment for me. The album didn’t flow nearly as seamlessly as Kiss Land, and the number of features was jarring. This says more about the excellence of Kiss Land though than it does about Beauty Behind the Madness. It is definitely less of an album in feeling, and more a collection of songs, but as Alan Partridge would say, what songs! “Tell Your Friends” remains one of The Weeknd’s truly classic songs, a “What’s My Name?”/”My Name Is” intro to people who were just being introduced to the prodigiously talented Canadian.

Go tell your friends about it
Go tell your friends about it
Go tell 'em what you know, what you seen
How I roll, how I get it on the low
Go tell your friends about it
Go tell your friends about it
I'm that nigga with the hair
Singing 'bout poppin' pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.

“Tell Your Friends” features a line that always gives me chills, the delivery and melody on the vocal rivalling Michael Jackson for power. “And I was broken, I was broken, I was so broke...” The sound of the song again differs from what came before it – having a long history and a long line of producers – but the end result is the same as it ever was: an astonishingly beautiful and powerful bit of musical alchemy. Over the years I have come to love Beauty Behind the Madness as a whole, the power of each song working its magic and coming together one by one, until every song is a thrill and a joy. The closing “Angel” was one that I couldn’t stand in 2015, but that might just be my favourite on the album today. It is a love song, but one in the true XO tradition: Lost love, fated destruction, the female backing vocals are among my favourite flourishes on any of his songs.“In The Night” likewise, was a song that really grew on me. Another Max Martin production, it again echoes Quincy Jones era Michael Jackson, with it a hidden depth to it. Ostensibly happy and upbeat, it is in fact another classic XO dichotomy. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who was abused as a child, who tries to bury her pain with all of the things that the night holds in store.

In the night she hears him calling
In the night she's dancing to relieve the pain
She'll never walk away
I don't think you understand
In the night when she comes crawling
Dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face
She'll never walk away
I don't think you understand.

“The Hills” was a big hit too, reaching number 1 on the Billboard 100. It is, along with “Often”, the most in keeping with Kiss Land before it. The opening, doom laden synths giving way to a hypnotic and highly physical song.

I only call you when it's half-past five
The only time that I'll be by your side
I only love it when you touch me, not feel me
When I'm fucked up, that's the real me
When I'm fucked up, that's the real me.

Just over a year later, The Weeknd would follow Beauty Behind the Madness with Starboy in November of 2016. Starboy is a divisive album among XO people, some considering it to be the low point of The Weeknd’s career. While it is certainly true that the album lacks a cohesive, thematic structure – even more so than Beauty Behind the Madness – it is unkind to dismiss it, as it features many great songs. These include two songs with electronically inclined, super fun, French duo Daft Punk, which open and close the album, the title track and “I Feel It Coming”, respectively. “Starboy” was a big hit, driving many new people to the music of The Weeknd. An element of the song – “House so empty need a centerpiece, twenty racks a table cut from ebony, cut that ivory into skinny pieces, then she clean it with her face, I love my baby.” - originated on a “throwaway” recording that is commonly known as “Ebony”. (“Ebony” also featured a lyric that would be used on Future’s “Low Life”). The song is a powerful work of dark and twisted Pop music. It makes even the most reserved soul get off the wall and onto the floor. “I Feel It Coming” is another song that could have easily been written for Michael Jackson, a hopeful, joyous number that soothes and heals. Starboy also saw the return of Doc McKinney as producer, working on half of the songs of the album.

Starboy has been certified as triple platinum in the United States, and for good reason. While it may not be as great a thematic and conceptual work as Kiss Land or House of Balloons, it contains some incredible songs. “Reminder” is perhaps the best on the album.

Record man play my song on the radio
You too busy tryna find that blue-eyed soul
I let my black hair grow and my weed smoke
And I swear too much on the regular
We gon' let them hits fly, we gon' let it go
If it ain't XO then it gotta go
I just won a new award for a kids show
Talking 'bout a face numbing off a bag of blow
I'm like, goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice
Goddamn, bitch, I am not a bleach boy
Whip game, make a nigga understand though
Got that Hannibal, Silence of the Lambo
Hit the gas so hard make it rotate
All my niggas blew up like a propane
All these R&B niggas be so lame
Got a sweet Asian chick, she go lo mein

You know me, know me
You know man, know man
You know me, know me
Every time you try to forget who I am
I'll be right there to remind you again
You know me
You know me.

Not a million miles away from “Tell Your Friends”, “Reminder” is a song that has been on repeat since I first heard it in 2016. “Secrets” is an unusual song in The Weeknd’s catalogue. Again, something that some say Abel has no business doing. It is a gentle, romantic song, with a great hook and production by Doc McKinney, Cirkut and The Weeknd. Going back to unexpected samples, the song features Tears For Fears and The Romantics. When playing this song live, Abel has called it one of his favourite songs, and it is not hard to see why. This is the benefit of not being constrained by one genre or the expectations of a certain section of the fans: the listener can get something they never knew they wanted.

Drake x The Weeknd

Drake was instrumental in spreading word of The Weeknd’s music. This is not in doubt. From his publicizing the first songs off of House of Balloons to featuring Abel on his second LP, Take Care, with “Crew Love” and “The Ride”, as well as using his hook on the song “Practice”.

That whole hook was me. […] He really wanted to incorporate my sound, which was inspired by his sound. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I had the “new sound.”’ It was just easier for him to relate to me, because it was his sound with an edge. It was that Toronto sound.

The history between Drake and The Weeknd is complicated, having gone through several phases of beefing, resolving issues and then returning to beefing again. I am not going to get into who said what on which song, but I think the best way to explain it is to say that Drake wanted Abel to be his protege, and Abel wanted to be his own man. I think Abel felt restrained by the idea of being tied to someone, and wanted his success to be of his own making. Regardless of whether Drake and Abel are on good terms today, they made some incredible music together, and one can hope that they get back together at some stage.

We found each other
I helped you out of a broken place
You gave me comfort
But falling for you was my mistake

I put you on top, I put you on top
I claimed you so proud and openly
And when times were rough, when times were rough
I made sure I held you close to me

Call out my name when I kiss you so gently
I want you to stay
I want you to stay even though you don't want me
Girl, why can't you wait?
Girl, why can't you wait 'til I fall out of love?
Won't you call out my name?
Girl, call out my name, and I'll be on my way.

My Dear Melancholy, The Weeknd’s first EP, was released in March, 2018. A surprise release, it saw The Weeknd get back to creating conceptual, thematically unified music. Some saw it simply as a return to the sound of Trilogy and Kiss Land, but in reality it is so much more than that. It is similar in tone to those great albums, but it is a development of that darker sound, replete with the Pop sensibilities that landed him big hits. Six songs and each of them an instant classic. The album opens with “Call Out My Name”, a song that recalls in large part “Wicked Games”. It is even more personal though than that song. Whether it is about Abel’s relationship with Selena Gomez or not is quite beside the point. It is apart from where the inspiration came from, an open-hearted, intensely emotional and powerful song.

“Try Me”, produced by Mike Will Made It, Marz, Frank Dukes and DaHeala, is a marvel of a song. That fragile falsetto on the intro, and then into perhaps the best chorus that The Weeknd has ever done. “Try me, try me, once you put your pride aside you can notify me.” The pure joy of the chorus, bookended by that fragile intro and the ruminative final section. “Wasted Times”, which follows, is similarly dazzling in how its Pop sensibilities collide and mesh with a certain edge of despair and isolation. “Wake up, I don’t wanna wake up... I don’t wanna wake up if you ain’t laying next to me...” My Dear Melancholy, was certainly a return to the dark atmosphere of The Weeknd’s earlier work, but the way in which it took lessons learned from Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness, gives it all a fresh perspective on that style. “I Was Never There” and “Hurt You” are the darkest songs on the album, the former attracting many hardcore XO’s vote for best song on the EP.

My Dear Melancholy, was perhaps a test for The Weeknd to see if the same general public who embraced his Pop side, would be willing to go into deeper water and swim in the same oceans that gave birth to him. Without the success of this EP, I don’t believe we would have seen the album that followed, and that would have been a great shame, as I believe that After Hours is among the very best work that The Weeknd has ever done.

I used to pray when I was sixteen
If I didn't make it, then I'd probably make my wrist bleed
Not to mislead, turn my nightmares into big dreams
Whole squad mobbin' even though we only six deep
I was singing notes while my niggas played with six keys
Walking in the snow before I ever made my wrist freeze
I was blowing smoke, had me dizzy like Gillespie
Niggas had no homes, we were living in the dead streets
You couldn't find me like I'm Hoffa
Cover girls jumping out the page like they pop ups
Spending all my money on these niggas that I brought up
Taking care of families for my brothers when they locked up
And I had nothing to believe in
Double cup leanin'
Couldn't even breathe and
For that money I was fiending
Cali was the mission but now a nigga leaving

Leaving, leaving into the night
Now a nigga leaving, leaving
Leaving into the night.

When the story of After Hours is told, it will be within the context of the strangest year of the last hundred years. Released in March of 2020, during a once in a lifetime pandemic, After Hours is the album that through some magic or other, represented the state of mind that so many were in with lockdowns, obsessive hand washing and social distancing. We all felt alone, separated from our friends and loved ones, and there was no album more suited to exploring that state of mind than After Hours.

After Hours is a thematically rich, immaculately produced and realized work that rivals Kiss Land and House of Balloons. It is remarkably dark and challenging, but never short of beautiful. Each song builds on the one that came before. It is a deeply personal album, chronicling the singer’s battles with substance abuse, a desperate kind of loneliness and a loosening grip on reality. Even on the album’s big Pop hits, “Blinding Lights”, “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears”, there is a decidedly dark mood that prevails. “Blinding Lights” is the longest running Billboard Top 10 hit in history, and surpassed all of The Weeknd’s previous hits. It is a perfectly crafted Pop song, produced by Max Martin, Oscar Holter and The Weeknd, its synth could stop wars. Even though it is certainly Pop, it is also a song that expresses a certain kind of loneliness and melancholy. The way in which Martin and Holter’s Pop genius collides with The Weeknd’s ability to tap into the dark side of life, is a delight to hear.

Take off my disguise
I'm living someone else's life
Suppressing who I was inside
So I throw two thousand ones in the sky
Together we're alone
In Vegas, I feel so at home
I'm falling only for the night
So I throw two thousand ones in the sky
Oh, oh, oh, how much to light up my star again
And rewire all my thoughts?
Oh, baby, won't you remind me what I am
And break, break my little cold heart?

“Alone Again” opens the album in a manner that recalls Kiss Land’s “Professional”. A song in two sections, it is a plea to feel something, anything again. To be with another, even another that you don’t love, is a comfort. This is the sound of a man isolated by fame, and by past actions. Regret fuels this album. When he sings “Won’t you remind me what I am?” we are hearing the phantom of Kiss Land return to haunt the singer’s world. “Scared To Live” is a song that interpolates Elton John’s “Your Song”, and is probably The Weeknd’s best love ballad. Beautifully stripped back production, allowing Abel’s voice to take centre stage.

“Snowchild” is perhaps the best song on After Hours, replacing the bravado of his Pop work with the evolved despair of his earlier work. A downbeat, but gorgeous production that calls back to “The Morning” – “Cali is the mission” – that operates as a memoir, laying the groundwork for “Escape From LA”. This is storytelling at its finest, wrapped around intricate arrangements and production, that should rightly make all other musicians feel jealous. The album closes with “After Hours” and “Until I Bleed Out”, two songs of such anguish and pain that it brings me back to all of the mistakes and regrets I have in my life. The title track is an epic six minute affair that combines the feel of a song like “Gone” with the club ready fever of Abel’s collaboration with Disclosure, “Nocturnal”. “Until I Bleed Out” is the darkest song that The Weeknd has ever released. It is a powerful close to the album, thematically concluding the thread of self-harm and terror that permeates After Hours. When he sings “I wanna cut you outta my dreams...” and his voice soars, the listener hears everything that is in his soul. It is beautiful and chilling.

After Hours is proof that The Weeknd could take the tone and atmosphere of his early work and make it succeed on the biggest stage possible. This is some achievement, and something that many people doubted could happen. My Dear Melancholy, was the test to see if people still loved that darker side but it was going through Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy, that allowed him to grow his sound, to add to his repertoire. His Pop success had a profound influence on this album; to not fear to return to that early sound, but to grow it, to add depth and complexity. To be able to please all sides of his fandom simultaneously is a hell of a trick, but he did it.

On February 8th, The Weeknd performed at the Super Bowl halftime, a stage that has hosted such legends and luminaries as Janet Jackson and Prince. In many ways this was the culmination of his journey that began a decade ago in Toronto, Canada. To perform on such a large stage and for people to know every song is an incredible achievement. The set was populated by his biggest hits, but also featuring a nod to long time XO with “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” making an appearance. The performance was cinematic, and really quite weird, a cavalcade of bandaged men bouncing around backstage, and eventually ending up on the field in a Michael Jackson “Thriller”-esque moment. The dark insanity of “Can’t Feel My Face” was brought out on the biggest stage, and it was a thrill to see. This is one reason why I have no issue with The Weeknd performing his hits, because his hits are the hook that gets people to listen to the rest of his catalogue.

Phil Mushnick wrote an odious piece in the New York Post prior to the performance, that fell back on well worn hysterical ageing white fear of black men, quoting lyrics that aimed to prove how dangerous The Weeknd’s music is, no doubt most of all to white women. It is amazing to me that people are still writing this kind of nonsense in 2021, that someone could be that backwards and ignorant, but there is part of it that pleases me: that there are those who feel so threatened by an this seriously talented black man, that they have to write this trash. And they should be afraid, because The Weeknd is a once in a generation talent, who has connected with millions and millions of people around the world, young and old, all colours and creeds, R&B fans and Pop fans. His music gets to the dark heart in us all, but also to the love and beauty and hope that we have.

The Weeknd’s journey from being homeless on Queen Street to singing Queen Street anthems is one that is among the most interesting and inspiring of the last decade. To go from an underground hero, who was terrified of performing in front of crowds, to someone who dominated the Billboard Top 10 and performed at one of the biggest sporting events in the world, is an incredible thing to see. No-one deserves their spot in Popular Music as much as The Weeknd. He is a true artist and as Elton John said: “Like Prince, he marches to his own beat. That’s an exemplary way for an artist to be.”

All lyrics from


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