The earliest video you can find of Abel Tesfaye, stylized as The Weeknd, is a shaky YouTube video of him performing at Toronto’s famed Mod Club in June 2011. In his first public performance, where he revealed his face to his fans for the first time, The Weeknd was featured wearing a camouflage jacket and a mop of curly hair (not quite at its current level of notoriety). Even more surprising than seeing the man who had been amassing impressive internet success and hype in the underground Toronto music scene, is realizing how nervous he was for his first performance, as he stood nailed to the center of the stage clutching the mike “for dear life”.
Fast forward to 2012. The second video from the Toronto native is more cell phone footage of him singing a snippet of his hit song “High for This” outside of the Eaton Centre with Joey Stylez, Lamar XO, Highly XO & Wabs Whitebird at Dundas Square.
In what seems retrospectively like a prophecy worthy of any Hollywood plot, The Weeknd’s declaration that Joey Stylez is “gonna blow” seems to have come true, albeit to a different person. The Scarborough born R&B star now sits comfortably at the metaphorical top of the world, while his second studio album Beauty Behind the Maddness sits at the literal top of the Billboard 100 chart.
So how did The Weekend go from singing a capella snippets of the songs from his mix tape at Yonge and Dundas square surrounded by his loyal entourage, to a number one album in the charts and worldwide recognition in a matter of three years? After all, when Toronto’s own Twitter God, former deputy mayor and Toronto city councillor Norm Kelly not only hypes up your album, but tweets your first major international awards show performance more than once, that is the height of mainstream success in ‘the 6ix’.
P.C- Screenshots from Norm Kelly’s Twitter
As an artist, Tesfaye’s beginnings were more humble than most. Born in the city’s famed East End to a single working immigrant mother, Abel was raised by his grandmother, from whom he learned to speak his first language, Amharic (the official language of his parents’ birthplace, Ethiopia). Raised to keep close touch with his background and culture, Abel maintains that his Ethiopian upbringing has strongly influenced his music. Gaining his name from when he and close friend Lamar dropped out of high school (“left one weekend and never came back “), much of Abel’s musical beginnings are reflective of the city in which he roamed. He mentions being broke, homeless and having to wander the streets of Toronto in more than one song.
Abel started making music professionally when he linked up with producer Jeremy Rose. He started producing songs that were so sad, they were almost lamentations. Laced with numerous explicit references to his exploits in the bedroom, and his widely publicized drug and alcohol use, Abel seemed to reflect the grungy underbelly of Toronto in his synth-indie R&B tracks. His songs have been described as melancholy, innovative PBR&B, and even narcoticised slow-jams. Indeed the beginning of his first widely successful song “High for This”, shows that The Weeknd has never shied away from some of his *ahem* not quite PG activities.
In addition to his own unique genre-defying/defining sound, Abel’s distinctive musical presence saw him going against the current of countless other underground artists and bands, in that he seemed to shy away from fame. In fact, for the majority of the time he was creating his first three EPs (collectively released at a later date as the Trilogy), none of his fans even knew what The Weeknd looked like. He never released any videos, put on live performances, or did interviews to promote his music. None of the covers for his first three EPs even featured a picture of him. Far from leading him down the path of obscurity, this move increased his fame and built his devoted underground fan-base through mystique and intrigue. One could even reasonably argue that The Weeknd as an artist and, consequently, his music were more appealing because of his enigmatic, nay, nearly mythical image.
After a critically favoured album Kiss Land, two radio played singles, “Often” and “King Of The Fall,” and a soundtrack for the movie 50 shades of Grey, our own Toronto PBR&B king did a mini-tour of North America and seemed to be moving into California’s star-studded music scene. In his own words, 2013 was when he did all the politicking before dropping his most commercially successful album to date, Beauty Behind the Maddness. Several of the singles from the album, including “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel my Face” became radio and chart favourites, staying for weeks at the top of the billboard charts.
With all this mainstream success, the age-old underground vs. mainstream debate is rekindled. In the new album, Abel seems to have moved from the darker, synth-infused sounds of his previous catalog, to a more pop-leaning R&B sound that we are sure to hear in clubs and bars all over North America for months to come. Despite the lyrics of the number one track “Tell Your Friends”, his new songs are catchy, fairly radio-friendly, and seem to present a less edgy side of the same artist. Is this an artist maturing and expanding his sound, or an attempt to tone down what made him so successful in the first place in order to appeal to a wider audience? Has his music lost the authentic edge that made him so popular, or is it still the same artistry but expressed in a different way?
I know it’s the typical hipster cry of “Ugh, he’s so mainstream now” and as much as I abhor the “hipster” label, I can’t help but feel the same way. The Weeknd’s persona and mystique were as significant as the songs he released, in terms of his artistry and image. The crucial question then becomes: was he appealing because he was so underground? Did we like him because we like the mystery and enigma of an artist that refuses to promote his own work? It’s a question that Abel himself seems to have thought of quite a bit, as shown in this open letter to his fans before the release of his video for Rolling Stone, in which he states that the video symbolizes the struggle between the mainstream and the underground.
Now that I hear ‘Can’t Feel my Face’ every time I step into Rabba and I see pictures of him holding hands with socialites online, does that make him less genuine to me as a music consumer? Does that change my opinion of him? Most importantly, does it make his music less authentic, and therefore less appealing? The music that he was producing while he was underground was directly affected by his environment. Now that that environment has changed as a result of his fame and success, does it affect his artistry and his future endeavors?
So, will fame and mainstream success change our favourite melancholy Toronto singer-songwriter? Only time will tell.