How the Weeknd soared from the ‘burbs to the big time
Sorry, Barenaked Ladies. The Weeknd is officially the best artist to hail from Scarborough. Over the past five years, the warbling, dread-headed R&B singer and producer also known as Abel Tesfaye has shot from obscure YouTube singer to Drake collaborator, Billboard mainstay, Rolling Stone cover star and, more recently, Oscar and seven-Grammy nominee. Now that awards season is upon us, we track his rise from the ‘burbs to the big time.
A 20-year-old from Scarborough posts three R&B-meets-rap songs to YouTube under the moniker The Weeknd: “What You Need,” “Loft Music” and “The Morning.” Drake reposts two of them on the OVO blog and instantly catapults the mystery man into the buzzy blogosphere. A month later, the New York Times lauds the songs in a year-end best-of list, calling each “a marvel of texture.”
Tesfaye self-releases the first of three mixtapes, House of Balloons. Pitchfork and Rolling Stone praise it, likening his falsetto to Michael Jackson and his sultry R&B to Frank Ocean and James Blake. Listeners love it, too (when it’s re-released in 2012, it goes double platinum). His lyrical fodder is almost exclusively about sex and drugs, as inspired by real life: after dropping out of high school, he turned his Parkdale apartment into a veritable den of vice, getting high on MDMA, cocaine and ketamine; now, he lives in a swanky financial district condo.
The Weeknd sells out his first live show, an impassioned (if slightly nerve-stricken) performance at the Mod Club, in a matter of hours—and fans have yet to shut up about it. Four years later, he returns for another sold-out show, sporting the same camo jacket he wore the first time around.
The Weeknd gets friendly with Toronto rap royalty when he sings on Drake’s “Crew Love” and “The Ride” and nabs co-writing credits for three other tracks on Take Care. Despite the increasing attention, he rarely grants interviews, building his mystery-man brand.
The Weeknd says drunk Taylor Swift kept petting his hair the first time they met https://t.co/gMSJVTiehi pic.twitter.com/G58SfsBAem
— Stereogum (@stereogum) October 21, 2015
He drops his first major-label album, Kiss Land, via Republic Records and his own imprint XO, which hits number two on the Billboard 200 and sells more than 273,000 copies, even without substantial radio play. Almost as important: he debuts that signature Weeknd ’do, a.k.a. the palm tree, the tsunami, the double mullet, the thing that drunken Taylor Swift cannot stop petting.
Tesfaye trades verses with Ariana Grande on “Love Me Harder” (355 million views and counting), marking his official entry into the ranks of mainstream pop. After a steamy duet with his cat-eared companion on Saturday Night Live, he teams up with godly Swedish pop producer Max Martin (“Shake It Off,” “Baby One More Time,” pretty much every Backstreet Boys hit) for his next LP.
His song “Earned It,” the lead single off the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, reaches number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and goes four-times platinum in the U.S. Coveted “racy suburban mom” demographic: check.
The decidedly poppy but still-brooding “Can’t Feel My Face” becomes the inescapable soundtrack to summer in Toronto (even Tom Cruise is “singing” it) and helps The Weeknd become the first artist to occupy the top three slots on the Hot R&B Songs chart. (“The Hills” and “Earned It” are the other two tracks.) Around the same time, tabloids start eating up his relationship with 19-year-old model and equestrian Bella Hadid.
His sophomore effort, Beauty Behind The Madness, sells 326,000 copies in its first week (second only to Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late). It later becomes the most-streamed album of 2015.
Aziz Ansari dons a Weeknd constume on Halloween and lip syncs “The Hills.” His off-kilter fro pales in comparison to the real deal.
Tesfaye performs two sold-out shows at the Air Canada Centre. He covers Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” dodges fan-slung bras, dances with a pair of rogue fans who storm the stage, and brings troubadour Ed Sheeran on stage to perform the guitar-driven “Dark Times.”
On top of winning a pair of American Music Awards and performing the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, he’s nominated for seven Grammys, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Pop Solo Performance and Best R&B Song. Thankfully, the above is the closest thing we get to a “Who is The Weeknd?” Tumblr.
it can't get more surreal than this. thank you for the recognition @TheAcademy . truly a proud moment.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) January 14, 2016
The world hits peak Weeknd. “Earned It” gets an Oscar nod for Best Original Song, alongside tunes by Sam Smith and Lady Gaga. If we wins, he’ll have, well, earned it.