I remember the first time I heard of the Weeknd.
It was in an Ariana Grande song.
That song played over and over in my head time and time again but I always wondered who is the guy that she’s singing with? I also thought, wow look at that awesome hair!
Abel Tesfaye is his name and singing is his game. He has proven to all of us that he can become one of the biggest pop stars of the world. He has come out of the shadows and now singing his own songs that are constantly played on the radio. You can’t go one car ride without the Weeknd because his songs are played all the time. No longer is he known as that guy in that Ariana Grande song. He’s known as the guy that can’t feel his face when he’s with you.
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He’d just had his first flash of true pop success: ‘‘Love Me Harder,’’ his duet with Ariana Grande, the childlike pop star with the grown-up voice, cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. He was scheduled to make a surprise cameo here at the end of a Grande medley. Until that song and, in a sense, that moment, Tesfaye had been a no-hit wonder: a cult act with millions of devotees and almost no mainstream profile.
When Tesfaye came out from the shadows midway through Grande’s performance, the crowd screamed. For two minutes, the singers traded vocal riffs and unflinching eye contact, Grande playing the naïf and Tesfaye the aggressor. The performance was quick and sweaty, and seconds after it was over, Tesfaye was already speeding for the exit, stopping only for a quick embrace from Kendall and Kylie Jenner. When he reached the parking lot, a yappy talent wrangler for an entertainment-news show sensed an opportunity and asked for an interview. Tesfaye gave him an amused half-smile and kept walking. ‘‘Hey!’’ the guy shouted in desperation, fumbling for a name before landing on the wrong one: ‘‘A$AP Rocky!’’ Tesfaye turned his head and said, ‘‘C’mon, man,’’ arching an eyebrow, then picked up the pace.
Tesfaye slowly began revealing himself in 2011 with a handful of live performances. By last year, he was a fringe superstar, selling out shows at huge venues like the Barclays Center, the Hollywood Bowl and the O2 Arena in London. Still, he began to feel that he had hit a ceiling — a high one, and maybe even a sustainable one, but a ceiling nonetheless.
The old Weeknd was comfortably, even enthusiastically, numb — the poet laureate of ruinous nights ending in bleary sunrises. His approach to songwriting, both in subject matter and production choices, was characterized by obscurity and darkness. But he began to wonder if there was another way. ‘‘I felt I had to change who I was,’’ he says. His new album, ‘‘Beauty Behind the Madness,’’ is the end result of a year’s worth of molting old habits, a creative upheaval that has begun to teleport him from the margins right to pop’s center.
By taking his old, gloomy gestures and repackaging them in ecstatic, radio-friendly arrangements, he has made one of the most sonically ambitious pop albums of the year, full of swaggeringly confident music indebted to the arena-size ambition of the 1980s, from Guns N’ Roses to Phil Collins to Michael Jackson.
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Above all, it is Jackson in Tesfaye’s cross hairs. ‘‘These kids, you know, they don’t have a Michael Jackson,’’ he says. ‘‘They don’t have a Prince. They don’t have a Whitney. Who else is there? Who else can really do it at this point?’’
Tesfaye and Taylor and their friend Hyghly Alleyne moved into a one-bedroom apartment in an old Victorian in Parkdale, an about-to-be-gentrified neighborhood that was populated at the time, Taylor says, by ‘‘students and crackheads.’’ They paid the $850 monthly rent with money from welfare checks. They were still teenagers, and they lived like it. During the days, they would shoplift food at a nearby supermarket. Some nights they would walk to the Social, a neighborhood bar. Occasionally, they would get into fights. Most nights, they would get high on whatever was around — MDMA, Xanax, cocaine, mushrooms, ketamine. ‘‘ ‘Kids,’ without the AIDS,’’ Tesfaye said. ‘‘No rules.’’
But success means having fewer places to hide. One sticky night in early June, as Tesfaye left the Trump SoHo New York hotel, a couple of paparazzi lurked outside, braving spurts of rain. They asked him to stop for a picture — they certainly knew his name by now — but he didn’t, instead heading for one of four black S.U.V.s idling curbside, waiting to drive him and his crew uptown for a performance at the Museum of Modern Art. Moments later, the 18-year-old model Bella Hadid stepped out of the building, her black jacket draped over a sheer black top. She was asked to stop for one, too. She demurred, wordlessly ducking into one of the other trucks.
Tesfaye and Hadid have been the subject of tabloid attention and online speculation for most of the spring. There is at least one Instagram account dedicated to documenting every instance the two have shared space, be it physical or virtual. (If one of them liked the other’s Instagram photo, it’s captured here.) For an artist who thrived on emotional detachment, love poses a threat. ‘‘Probably my and my manager’s biggest fear is if this kid falls in love, we’re done, we’re finished,’’ Tesfaye had said in December.
Once the caravan arrived at MoMA, everyone spilled out of the S.U.V.s and surveyed the room. Hangers-on began clustering around Tesfaye, so he scurried to an elevator and the safety of his green room. Hadid gave him a quick kiss, then went with her friends to stand at the side of the stage.
A couple of weeks later, Tesfaye refused to talk about Hadid. Asked if he was in love, he replied: ‘‘I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t think so. Maybe. It’s no, it’s yes, it’s maybe.’’ He is telling a more complete story on the album: ‘‘It’s about me being who I am and stepping out of my comfort zone to try to feel something else besides what I’ve been feeling the past four years,’’ Tesfaye said last month in Los Angeles. ‘‘Ups and downs,’’ he said. ‘‘In my past albums, there were never ups.’’
StreeXB extends special thanks to The New York Times for this article. Click here for the full story.