Ahead of The Weeknd’s Longitude headliner, Ed Power looks at the artist behind pop’s most fascinating enigma.
Abel Tesfaye cut a singularly mysterious figure when he first materialised with the Trilogy album in 2012. That record was a compilation of the music the Toronto native had been making in his ramshackle suburban apartment and releasing, without fanfare, under his stage-name.
At that moment, The Weeknd seemed destined for minor league acclaim. Critics gushed about his sinuous voice, which suggested an existentially bereft Michael Jackson, and his flair for stripped-to-the-chassis beats. What nobody predicted was that, within a few years, Tesfaye would be topping charts internationally and headlining festivals.
The breakthrough came in 2015 with his Behind The Beauty And The Madness LP, and its blockbuster single ‘Can’t Feel My Face’. An unashamed shot at mainstream fame, the project featured a who’s who of songwriters and producers, among them Britney Spears collaborator Max Martin and a softly-spoken rapper named Kanye West.
“Trilogy was more of a claustrophobic body of work, before it was released I hadn’t left my city for 21 years, and I had never been on a plane, not once,” Tesfaye would later comment. “I spent my entire life in one setting, that’s probably why pieces of the album feel like one long track, because that’s what my life felt like. It felt like one long song.”
His new music was very different – less claustrophobic and introverted, and intent on delivering big pop pay-offs. From that moment he’s hardly looked back. In late 2016, The Weeknd released Starboy, an epic grab-bag of pop tropes that saw the once retiring Tesfaye shoot for the stratosphere and double down on his persona of world’s most miserable lady’s man. Indeed by his telling, the only thing worse than not hooking up with a glamorous beauty at “the club” is hooking up with a glamorous beauty at “the club”. Life was clearly complicated – and that’s even without taking into consideration the drama over the dreadlocks he shed 12 months ago.
“The vibe on Starboy comes from that hip-hop culture of braggadocio – from Wu-Tang and 50 Cent, the kind of music I listened to as a kid. Bragging just sounds good, man. I was a teenager when I saw Scarface – and even though it was unbelievable, it’s kind of cool Tony Montana could survive all those gunshots and
not feel them.”
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