When The Weeknd uploaded his first batch of dark and brooding R&B tunes to YouTube in December 2010, he kept his identity secret. After being championed online by Drake, the enigmatic new artist played his first live show in Toronto the following July. By this stage, we’d gleaned that The Weeknd was Abél Tesfaye, the son of Ethiopian parents who relocated to Canada in the ’80s. We also knew he’d made ends meet by working at a branch of hipster clothing store American Apparel. But he remained a mysterious figure who was difficult to pin down: he wouldn’t give his first press interview until he started promoting debut album ‘Kiss Land’ two years later.
Before we’d even seen a picture of his face, The Weeknd had established himself as a sex symbol. “Blue-ball queen, take your f**king seat, baby / Ride it out, now I know you wanna scream, baby,” he sings on early song ‘The Loft’. And when he released ‘Kiss Land’ two years later, he made no attempt to tone down the Lothario act. “But I’m sure I’ll make you c*m / Do it three times in a row,” he purrs purposefully on an album track called ‘Love In The Sky’. The fact he’s dating supermodel Bella Hadid only adds to his sexy reputation, especially since she starred as a stripper assassin in his ‘In The Night’ video last year.
The Weeknd’s early mixtapes were branded ‘alternative R&B’ because they sounded grittier and more grown-up than most chart fodder. But he also built indie credibility with his choice of samples: ‘House Of Balloons’ borrowed elements from Scottish innovators Cocteau Twins and ’80s goth-punks Siouxsie And The Banshees. In 2012, he reached peak indie by sampling The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ on the song ‘Enemy’.
Although The Weeknd began his career avoiding interviews, this wasn’t part of a masterplan. “The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it,” he told Complex in 2013, adding: “I felt like I had nothing to say. I still feel I have nothing to say. I’m the most boring person to talk to.” But now that he’s accustomed to the spotlight, Tesfaye’s damning assessment of his personality feels a bit harsh. He’s gamely taken part in Saturday Night Live skits and has shown an intriguing bloody-minded streak. Discussing his trademark hairdo with the Wall Street Journal last month, he said: “I told everybody I was getting rid of it, and everybody – literally, unanimously – they were like, ‘No, don’t do it! That’s your whole thing, that’s you.’ And the way they said that, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely cutting it now.’”
Debut album ‘Kiss Land’ charted at number two in the US in 2013, but The Weeknd really crossed over into the mainstream the following year. On paper, a collaboration with pop singer Ariana Grande looked like a mistake, but actually it was a stroke of marketing genius. Their throbbing electro gem ‘Love Me Harder’ introduced The Weeknd to a mainstream audience and helped Grande to shake off her squeaky-clean teen idol image. From this moment on, The Weeknd was unstoppable: his Fifty Shades Of Grey song ‘Earned It’ won him an Oscar nomination, he teamed up with super-producer Max Martin to craft global smash ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, and 2015’s follow-up album ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ went on to sell millions worldwide.
Now he’s a chart-topping pop star, millions of listeners are being seduced by The Weeknd. “I feel like his music is really sexy, and I like that,” Swedish rising star Tove Lo said recently. But others have mocked the often despondent way he writes about sex and relationships. In 2013, music mag Spin described his songs as “mope ’n’ grope jams”, and notorious American blog Gawker wrote last year: “The Weeknd sings about sex a lot, and it almost always sounds like a miserable experience.” He’s definitely got a dark side: one of his favourite songs is ‘Dirty Diana’, Michael Jackson’s famously unflattering portrait of a rock groupie.
As his profile and fortune have grown, The Weeknd has also become a bit of a philanthropist. He keeps his charity work typically low-key, but we know he donated $50,000 to an Ethiopian studies course at the University of Toronto in 2014, and gave $250,000 to Black Lives Matter earlier this year. He tweeted in support of the racial equality movement in July, writing: “Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up for this. We can either sit and watch, or do something about it. The time is now #blacklivesmatter”.
However, The Weeknd’s reputation isn’t entirely blemish-free. On January 10 2015, he was arrested in the early hours of the morning after allegedly punching a police officer during an altercation at a Las Vegas hotel. According to TMZ, he later pleaded “no contest” and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.
Dropping on November 25, ‘Starboy’ is the album that will shape The Weeknd’s future. The title is partly a nod to David Bowie, and it was set to feature Prince, who passed away before the pair could work together. He’s also named his 2017 tour ‘Legend Of The Fall’, so there’s no denying The Weeknd is nowshooting sky-high. At this stage, he’s in it for the long haul.
Though he’s already worked with Drake, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Sia and Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd’s latest collaboration could be his biggest coup yet. ‘Starboy’, the lead single and title track from his new album, was co-written and produced by notoriously reclusive French duo Daft Punk. Recalling this once-in-a-lifetime experience, The Weeknd told the Wall Street Journal: “Their studio is like a spaceship, there’s a lot of gear. But the way they make music, the way they explain it, is very cinematic. It’s like they’re reading a page out of a novel – ‘We want to make sure that at the end, it feels like the sun’s coming up, and maybe there’s a car chase.’ They can get technical, but it was interesting how they visualise making music.”