Who is The Weeknd, the RnB Starboy topping the charts?
With his third album, Starboy, prodigious Canadian RnB producer with his retro-futurist sound has been sitting pretty at number 1 in the charts for ten weeks. But who’s really behind The Weeknd, a collaborator of Daft Punk among so many others?
1 – ANTICONFORMIST BEGINNINGS
Abel Tesfaye (his real name) was born in Scarborough, east Toronto. His emigrant Ethiopian parents came to Canada in the 1980s, and he was a regular church-goer, learning Amharic (a Semitic language) with his grandmother. She brought him up while his mother, abandoned by his dad, worked hard as a nurse to meet her family’s needs. A troubled teen, Abel was smoking weed at the age of 11 and seeking refuge in the words of his music heroes, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Prince. At 17 he left school to hang out on the wrong side of town where he started taking more drugs like ecstasy and oxycodone. But the young rebel also had ambition. When he started work as a sales assistant at American Apparel (who probably loved his streetwear style and Basquiat haircut), he also started producing music. He became known as “The Weeknd” in reference to his taste for playing truant. Along with another slacker friend, they left their lives one weekend and never went home again. A legend was born…
In March 2011 Drake tweeted about a young prodigy, which helped to increase the buzz
2. BREAKING IN TO THE INDIE SCENE
His first RnB tracks – all dark, strange, downy and sensual – written in 2010, as well his mixtapes published on the Net in 2011 (House of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes of Silence) first found success with an indie audience who shared his work on their blogs. then he caught the attention of the Pitchfork Music Festival and the New York Times. In March 2011 Drake tweeted about a young prodigy, which helped to increase the buzz. At a concert in London in June 2012, The Weeknd continued ruffling feathers with an incredibly sexy version of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana – the song that had made him want to do music. He also appeared at the Coachella Festival that same year, where both his energy and aesthetics were in keeping with the traditions of rock music. Abel seduced with his ability to generate a sense of mystery, refusing interviews and speaking out mainly on Twitter. And it worked. In 2012 The Weeknd finally encountered mainstream glory with a compilation entitled Trilogy, regrouping all his mixtapes. In just a short space of time, it went gold.
Always between dusk and day, his slow tracks, twisted and hypnotic, are haunted with lyrics that deal with sex, partying and drugs under the influence of opiates
3. AN ECLECTIC WORLD
The Canadian singer-songwriter and producer had grown up listening to a huge variety of music, from soul and hip-hop to funk, indie rock and post-punk. His record collection features everyone from Portishead, Massive Attack, Cam’ron, D’Angelo, The Smiths, Bad Brains and Talking Heads to Eminem. And it’s this very richness that makes The Weeknd’s tunes so original. The daring young producer isn’t scared to mix his RnB influences with electro elements and alternative rock riffs. The dreamy punk hymn House of Balloons is like an experiment with gothic hit Happy House by Siouxsie and the Banshees thrown into the mix. And then there’s the sampling of his contemporaries, dream pop band Beach House or his honorary godmother, Aaliyah. His vocal style, which can reach very high falsetto tonalities comes from the singers of Abyssinia, and his plaintive, profoundly emotional phrasing evokes oriental music and its dramatic atmosphere. Always between dusk and day, his slow tracks, twisted and hypnotic, are haunted with lyrics that deal with sex, partying and drugs under the influence of opiates.
One of the songs was used for the sound track to the blockbuster movie Hunger Games which led to the record selling nearly 100,000 copies
4. A PRECIOUS ENTOURAGE
In 2013 The Weeknd released his much anticipated album Kiss Land with a featuring by Drake (Live For), and another with Kavinsky (Odd Look). One of the songs was used for the sound track to the blockbuster movie Hunger Games which led to the record selling nearly 100,000 copies. In 2015 The Weeknd’s cinematic world found its perfect vehicle: the sound track to Fifty Shades of Grey. The Weeknd now knows what a busy week really means: he’s touring as the support act for another sex-symbol, Justin Timberlake and remixing Beyoncé’s Drunk In Love with his own slower, erotic and melancholic sauce. Abel is also working On M.I.A.’s album Matangi and the ever loyal Drake called him in 2014 to support him on his tour, Would You Like A Tour. And let’s not forget his professional involvement with Disclosure, Travis Scott, Sia, Ariana Grande and Alicia Keys. Rihanna’s Anti World Tour almost happened in 2016, but didn’t. Maybe Riri was worried the Michael Jackson of the Tinder generation would steal the show…
Number 1 in 80 countries the album manages to retain the vocal specifics of the artist, the diversity of his influence (new wave, house) as well as his enigmatic and ethereal aura
5. A MAINSTREAM EVOLUTION MASTERED
In 2015, Abel released his second studio album Beauty Behind the Madness with the irresistible track Can’t Feel My Face (dedicated to his then girlfriend Bella Hadid). It was a whole lot more poppy, efficient and commercial. In just a few weeks 326,000 albums were sold. One of the songs Tell Your Friends was even produced by Kanye West. Beauty Behind the Madness became the most streamed album of 2015 with more than 60 million listeners under its spell. At the start of 2016 The Weeknd continued his ascension with appearances on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. This November Abel released a new record, the ambitious Starboy, with the increasingly rare Daft Punk and the enchanting Lana Del Rey in a truly stellar casting. Number 1 in 80 countries the album manages to retain the vocal specifics of the artist, the diversity of his influence (new wave, house) as well as his enigmatic and ethereal aura. Recently the young producer, who’s now filthy rich, proved that he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from by donating a part of his profits to the University of Toronto as well as Black Lives Matter. He also visited sick kids at a hospital in Atlanta. But this bold Starboy is now the unquestionable super star of contemporary RnB with an unstoppable groove and grace. Far, far away from the contingencies of planet earth…