Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, singer, songwriter (born 16 February 1990 in Scarborough, ON).
Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, singer, songwriter (born 16 February 1990 in Scarborough, ON). Known for his compelling brand of atmospheric, enigmatic and trip-hop-infused R&B — like “Michael Jackson fronting Radiohead,” as one critic put it — The Weeknd has quickly become an influential and dominant presence in R&B and pop music. His first collection of music, the free download House of Balloons (2011), was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize and kicked off a storm of international attention. His chart-topping sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), won multiple awards and solidified his reputation as a global pop superstar. In 2011, he was described by the New York Times as “the most invigorating, surprising and affecting new force in R&B,” and in 2015 he became the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart. He has won nine Juno Awards, two Grammy Awards, seven SOCAN Awards and three MuchMusic Video Awards. He has also received an Academy Award nomination and the 2014 Allan Slaight Award from Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Tesfaye was born and raised in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. He is of Ethiopian descent and learned Ahmaric (a Semitic language) from his grandmother, who was his primary caretaker through his childhood while his single mother worked. He was influenced musically in his youth by R&B and pop artists such as Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Prince. He dropped out of high school at 17 and lived with two friends in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. He experimented with drugs, worked at an American Apparel store, and began to write and record music.
Early Career and Recordings
In 2008, Tesfaye became involved with a Toronto-based R&B and pop trio called the Noise, which eventually morphed into a writing and production team consisting of Tesfaye, by this time going by the moniker The Weekend, and producer Jeremy Rose. In 2009, while working on demo tapes and songs for other artists, they met Drake, who considered including their track “Birthday Suit” on his debut album, Thank Me Later (2010).
After creative differences led to a split with Rose, Tesfaye began to work at Toronto’s Dream House Studios with producers Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese and Martin “Doc” McKinney, known for his work with Esthero, k-os and Hawksley Workman. He also changed the spelling of his stage name in order to avoid copyright issues with a band from London, Ontario, called The Weekend.
Mixtapes and Breakthrough Success
In early March 2011, Drake sent a Twitter message directing his fans to his October’s Very Own website to download The Weeknd’s song, “Wicked Games,” the lyrics of which (“Bring your love baby I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain”) established his brooding brand of nihilistic romanticism. Drake’s blog post used the phrase “OVOXO,” denoting the connection between Drake’s OVO crew and The Weeknd’s label, XO (reported to be a reference to the drugs ecstasy and oxycodone).
Drake continued to raise awareness of Tesfaye’s music in further tweets, and on 21 March 2011, The Weeknd released, for free download, the mixtape House of Balloons. It features an unusually atmospheric and downbeat brand of soul and R&B, and employs eclectic samples from Siouxie and the Banshees, the Cocteau Twins and Aaliyah. House of Balloons was downloaded more than 200,000 times in three weeks, and was met with critical acclaim from such publications as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The latter summarized the overall tone of this “intriguing new alternative R&B voice” by saying, "Debauchery is obviously nothing new in R&B, but this takes it a step further ― the drugs are harder, the come-ons feel predatory and lecherous, and the general feeling is self-hating rather than celebratory."
By July 2011, House of Balloons had been nominated for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, and the track “High for This” had been used in the ad campaign for the HBO TV series Entourage. However, The Weeknd refused to give any interviews and only released partially obscured photos of himself, building an aura of intrigue around his image and his ambient style of music. His first live show — at Toronto’s Mod Club on 24 July 2011 — sold out within hours. Scalpers hawked tickets for upwards of $300 and record label representatives from the US were on hand. Critics in attendance praised The Weeknd’s vocal performance, with the Globe and Mail’s Joshua Ostroff remarking on his “dry-ice falsetto and disquietingly sexual lyricism.” Later that week, he played a live set at Drake’s OVOFest to thousands of people at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheater.
On 18 August 2011, The Weeknd released a second mixtape for free download entitled Thursday, featuring Drake on “The Zone,” and on 27 September he released a remix of “Shake it Out” by UK orchestral pop group Florence and The Machine. On 2 November, he and Illangelo released their remix of Lady Gaga’s “Marry the Night,” and on 16 November 2011, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times reviewed The Weeknd’s live show in Guelph, Ontario, and declared him “the most invigorating, surprising and affecting new force in R&B.”
November 2011 also saw the release of Drake’s Grammy-winning album Take Care, which featured The Weeknd as a vocalist and co-producer on two tracks (“Crew Love” and “The Ride”) and co-writer on three others. “Crew Love” became an international hit, cracking Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 and US Hot 100, and charting in the Top 20 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart and in the Top 10 on the UK R&B chart.
On 21 December 2011, The Weeknd released his third free mixtape, Echoes of Silence, which includes “D.D.,” a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” At year’s end, House of Balloons was named to top-10-of-the-year lists by such publications as the New York Times, Billboard and the Guardian, and was ranked as the seventh best-reviewed album of the year by the review aggregator Metacritic.
After playing the Coachella festival in early 2012, The Weeknd sold out his five-date debut US tour in the spring. In September, he signed a major label deal with Universal’s Republic Records through his imprint label, XO. He then opened for Florence and the Machine at a string of US shows in the fall of 2012.
On 13 November 2012, after a laborious process of gaining copyright clearance for the samples on all the songs, his three previously free mixtapes were re-mastered and released as the album Trilogy with three new tracks: “Twenty Eight,” “Valerie” and “Till Dawn (Here Comes the Sun).” Trilogy debuted at No. 5 on the Canadian album chart and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It sold 86,000 copies in the US during its first week, and was later certified double platinum in Canada and platinum in the US. The lead single, “Wicked Games,” was later certified a gold digital download in Canada and platinum single in the US.
In April 2013, The Weeknd won Juno Awards for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Trilogy) and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. After being named to Elle magazine’s “30 under 30” list, he appeared at Drake’s OVOFest in Toronto on 5 August 2013 for the third year running, quashing rumours of creative differences between the two artists. Ahead of a new album, The Weeknd released the single “Belong to the World,” which samples the Portishead song “Machine Gun.”
Kiss Land (2013)
After conducting no major press for the first two years of his career, The Weeknd gave his first media interview with Complex magazine in July 2013 to promote what he called his “first album,” Kiss Land, released in September 2013. Inspired by the experience of travelling beyond Toronto, and by the films of horror directors such as David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, the deceptively dark Kiss Land featured The Weeknd working with new producers, and was met with positive and mixed reviews by critics. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the US iTunes chart.
He made the first of several US television appearances performing “Pretty” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on 12 September 2013, and performed in front of a sold out crowd at London’s O2 arena on 26 November. He also appeared on Drake’s Would You Like a Tour? tour and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience as the opening act. He teamed with Doc McKinney and Illangelo to appear on M.I.A.’s album Matangi, and contributed the Rick Rubin-produced “Devil May Cry” to the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). He also received a Grammy nomination for his featured performance on Wiz Khalifa’s 2012 single, “Remember You.”
In early 2014, The Weeknd continued his transition from cult figure to high profile pop star by releasing covers of popular songs by Beyoncé (“Drunk in Love”) and Ty Dolla $ign (“Or Nah”) for free download. In June 2014, he released the new song “Often,” which was later certified a gold single in the US, and followed it up a month later with “King of the Fall,” which also served as the name of his four-date North American tour in September and October 2014.
His duet with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder,” was released on 30 September 2014 and went on to become his first Top 10 hit, reaching No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. They performed the song on NBC’s Saturday Night Live on 27 September and at the American Music Awards on 23 November. He then contributed the songs “Earned It” and “Where You Belong” to the soundtrack of the film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). He performed “Earned It” at the 2016 Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Original Song.
Beauty Behind the Madness(2015)
The Weeknd’s second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness, features collaborations with Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Ed Sheeran and Labyrinth, and was released in August 2015. It was preceded by lead singles “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” “The Hills” was released in May 2015, debuting at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; it later went to No. 1. The song’s cinematic music video, depicting The Weeknd abandoning two women injured in a car crash that he seemingly caused, was released at the same time. “The Hills” was later certified as a triple platinum digital download in Canada for sales of more than 240,000 units.
In June 2015, The Weeknd’s biggest hit to date, "Can’t Feel My Face,” debuted at No. 24 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. It reached No. 1 two months later. Produced by superstar hit-maker Max Martin, “Can't Feel My Face” earned comparisons to Michael Jackson and was certified five-times platinum in the US. It was named the best song of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, which praised The Weeknd’s “showstopping vocal performance” and the way he “cleverly disguises his obsession with drugs beneath a metaphor about a dangerously hot fling […] playing down his angst-y tendencies until there's just a hint of existential pain in his lighter-than-air falsetto.” The song went on to receive 2016 Grammy Award nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance.
The Weeknd became the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart when “Can't Feel My Face,” “The Hills” and “Earned It” landed there the week of 25 July 2015. Upon its release in August 2015, Beauty Behind the Madness debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and stayed there for three weeks. In September, The Weeknd became the first male artist in almost seven years to have two (“Can't Feel My Face” and “The Hills”) of the top three spots on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. In the chart week ending 10 October, “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face” were at No. 1 and 3 respectively, while Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” held No. 2 and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” was at No. 4, marking the first time in history that Canadians held the top four spots. The Weeknd also set a record in 2015 for winning the most SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards in one calendar year with five.
The success of Beauty Behind the Madness positioned The Weeknd as one of the biggest pop stars in the world. The album has been certified double platinum in both Canada and the US. In 2015, it won an American Music Award for Favorite Male Artist–Soul/R&B and a Soul Train Music Award for Album of the Year. At the 2016 Grammy Awards, Beauty Behind the Madness won the award for Best Urban Contemporary Album while “Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)” won for Best R&B Performance. At the 2016 Juno Awards, The Weeknd took home five awards: Songwriter of the Year; Artist of the Year; Single of the Year for "Can't Feel My Face"; and Album of the Year and R&B/Soul Recording of the Year for Beauty Behind the Madness.
The dark, somnambulant mood of The Weeknd’s music, equal parts narcotic and nocturnal, has drawn much attention and critical praise. The Guardian’s Hermoine Hoby described The Weeknd’s songs as “narcotised-slow jams” in which “partying is an existential experience, sex is fraught with alienation, and everything registers as unreal and unsettling.” The Globe and Mail’s J. D. Considine has said, “His sound is hardly party music; it’s more like the after-party, with his sweet, plaintive tenor floating like cigarette smoke over darkly atmospheric synths and a slow, almost narcotic groove.” Rolling Stone has described him as “Drake with the soul of an art-school goth,” and stated bluntly that he “rocks a serious Eeyore vibe” and “specializes in sensual numbness.” Billboard wrote in 2015 that his catalogue is “mostly composed of gorgeously sung songs about getting high and slowly falling apart.”
Considine also observed that Tesfaye’s stage name could be read as “a double-edged pun, suggesting both ‘the weekend,’ with its promise of romance, relaxation and nightclub frolics, and ‘the weakened,’ with its recognition of the emotional toll life takes.” Jon Caramanica of the New York Times echoed that assessment by describing The Weeknd’s central thematic concerns as “romance as nihilism, or maybe nihilism as romance — I don’t know which is the chicken, and which is the egg. But there’s an outrageous darkness to his perspective on relationships, and his perspective on interacting with women, and it’s interesting because it doesn’t feel abusive.”
However, due to The Weeknd’s treatment of women in his songs, tToronto Star characterized him, along with Bieber and Drake, as a “sensitive misogynist,” noting that the three stars “have managed to glaze over the general sexism of their oeuvres with a veneer of regretful, tormented sensitivity.”
In May 2014, Geoff Barrow of Portishead released a letter from The Weeknd’s licensing representatives showing that they had requested permission to sample the Portishead song “Machine Gun” on The Weeknd’s “Belong to the World” — permission that Barrow never granted. However, to date, he has not taken legal action against The Weeknd.
On 10 January 2013, The Weeknd was arrested after becoming involved in a fight at the Cromwell Hotel in Las Vegas and allegedly punching a police officer. After posting bail, he posted a picture of himself on Instagram walking towards a private jet, with the caption, “Escaped from Las Vegas.”
In December 2015, The Weeknd was sued for copyright infringement for illegally sampling the score from the 2013 movie The Machine in "The Hills." The film's composer, Tom Raybould, claimed that Emmanuel Nickerson, a producer on "The Hills,” sent him a direct message on Twitter saying he sampled his music and that it might appear on The Weeknd's next album. An undisclosed settlement was reached between the two parties.
In September 2014, The Weeknd was recognized as a “young, inspirational Canadian who has achieved international success” by Canada’s Walk of Fame with the $10,000 Allan Slaight Award.
R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Trilogy) (2013)
Breakthrough Artist of the Year (2013)
R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (“Often”) (2015)
Artist of the Year (2015)
Album of the Year (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
Single of the Year (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2016)
R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
Songwriter of the Year (2016)
Artist of the Year (2016)
Best Urban Contemporary Album (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
Best R&B Performance (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”) (2016)
MuchMusic Video Awards
Video of the Year (“Often”) (2015)
Best Pop Video (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”) (2015)
Most Buzzworthy Canadian Artist (2015)
No. 1 Song Award (”Wicked Games”) (2013)
No. 1 Song Award (“Live For”) (2013)
No. 1 Song Award (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2015)
No. 1 Song Award (“Earned It”) (2015)
No. 1 Song Award (“The Hills”) (2015)
No. 1 Song Award (“Often”) (2015)
No. 1 Song Award (“Love Me Harder”) (2015)
Soul Train Music Awards
Album of the Year (“Beauty Behind the Madness”) (2015)
Best R&B/Soul Male Artist (2015)
Allan Slaight Award, Canada’s Walk of Fame (2014)
ASCAP Award (“Crew Love”), American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (2012)
Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B, American Music Awards (2015)
Favorite Soul/R&B Album, American Music Awards (2015)
Centric Award (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”), BET Awards (2015)
Favorite R&B Artist, People’s Choice Awards (2016)
Jason Richards, “For Indie Bands the New Publicity is No Publicity,” The Atlantic, 6 July 2011.
Joshua Ostroff, “Anonymous No More This Weeknd is Here to Stay,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 25 July 2011.
Jon Caramanica, “The Weeknd at The Guelph Concert Theater in Ontario: Equal Parts Heart and Abrasiveness,” New York Times, 16 November 2011.
Ryan B. Patrick, “Waiting on The Weeknd,” Exclaim!, 28 November 2011.
Joshua Alston, “The Weeknd Finds Lucrative Career Path — Without Ever Selling a Record,” The Guardian, 29 December 2011.