Column – The Weeknd: Rise of the anonymous superstar

Column – The Weeknd: Rise of the anonymous superstar

theweekndVideo of Tom Cruise lip-syncing to The Weeknd’s recent single Can’t Feel My Face (below) on The Tonight Show went viral this week. It’s a measure of how far the Toronto-based musician has penetrated the mainstream in recent months. For a long time though, he was unreachable.

Towards the end of 2010, trading facelessly as The Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye began uploading tracks to YouTube. His dimly-lit, narcotic take on modern R&B caused enough fuss that Drake enthusiastically blogged about it, yet Tesfaye remained anonymous enough that he could work all day folding T-shirts at American Apparel, listening to colleagues play his music unaware that he was its creator.

Throughout 2011, he uploaded a triumvirate of mixtapes: House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence. Each nine-track collection was free to all who cared to download it. By the time he played his debut UK show in June 2012 – with £20 tickets going for £350 from touts – eight million people had done just that. Tesfaye signed a major label deal and his largesse and anonymity did little to dent record sales: the mixtapes were remastered and repackaged as Trilogy, an album that went platinum in the US.

In 2013, the Kiss Land album was a document of Tesfaye’s struggle to come to terms with touring and his burgeoning fame. “I don’t know who I am right now,” he told Complex magazine, “and I’m doing all these outlandish things in these settings that I’m not familiar with. To me, it’s the most terrifying thing ever.” You’d be forgiven for suspecting he was about to retreat back into the margins.

Two years later, on Osea Island, a private holiday retreat off the coast of Essex, Tesfaye has helicoptered in to play his only UK gig of 2015. Despite its exclusive nature – he playing to 250 competition winners plus another 200 label staff and media in a concerted bomb factory – the event suggests that Tesfaye is no longer an island himself.

It’s hard to square the mystery auteur behind House Of Balloons, or the rabbit in the stage lights of Kiss Land, with the upfront, upbeat performer on Osea Island. A recent interview with the New York Times revealed he’d told an A&R head at his label that he wanted to be “the biggest in the world” and tonight, backed by a three-piece band, he’s generous with his energy, enthusiasm and appreciation of the modest crowd. What really emphasizes his growing accessibility though is the newest material.

Can’t Feel My Face, written with Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears producer Max Martin, is ruthlessly pop, Tesfaye suggesting prime era Michael Jackson in his glacé vocal and commitment to melody. There’s also immediacy within the melodrama of Earned It, the constellation of raised cameraphones in the front rows shaking along to its brooding thumps. Even darker, looser-structured early tracks such as House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls feel revitalized by Tesfaye’s engaged delivery. A couple of hours after leaving the stage, the ever-generous Tesfaye is on Soundcloud, posting the one new track debuted tonight: the drowsy, melodic Mood Music 2, uploaded as “Untitled (July 15)”.

As the music industry continues to slowly recalibrate itself in line with digital music and streaming, Tesfaye is an increasingly interesting figure. He’s parlayed anonymity and free music into platinum sales, loosening his autonomy to work with a major label and a stellar pop producer in pursuit of mega-watt stardom. The man who began by giving everything away might just go on to have it all. Matt Mason @MattMason_

For more head to Theweeknd.com.