Can The Weeknd Make It As a Pop Star?


It wasn’t until two years after The Weeknd dropped his first mixtape, 2011’s House of Balloons—to majority praise but with zero publicity—that he finally felt comfortable enough to grant his first interview. At that point, we’d barely seen his face. He could’ve looked like a Fraggle for all we knew. Speaking to Complex for a cover story, he blamed his lack of visibility on insecurity and owned up to being a recluse. “The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it,” he said. “It reminded me of some villain shit. But you can’t escape the Internet.” He also explained the reason for his silence in the press: “I felt like I had nothing to say. I still feel I have nothing to say.”

On Monday, The Weeknd closed out Apple’s ceremonious WWDC event—where the company unveils its future obsessions—by performing his new single, “I Can’t Feel My Face.” The only other artist to appear was Drake.

More than anything in The Weeknd’s gloomy catalog, “I Can’t Feel My Face” is definitive airy pop, produced by the airy pop king Max Martin. It’s the answer to the question of what happens when The Weeknd makes his self-deprecating drug blues accessible to the masses. It’s a coke ode that brightens the mood. Though it starts off dark enough (“I know she’ll be the death of me/ At least we’ll both be numb,” he sings), it also whittles down much of what’s wonderfully miserable about The Weeknd’s sound. It’s not bad, but it’s not all the way him.

For people wondering “Who is The Weeknd?” a better song that’s truer to his depressive aesthetic is “The Hills,” which he released at the end of May—after three songs of his prematurely leaked—and announced it as the beginning of a new chapter, along with a new album. Also, a new self?

The Weeknd is the epitome of dark and a master of mystery, which makes it all the more fascinating (and partially worrisome) that he’s now on the verge of a major breakout, after being appreciated more as an underground king. He’s finally creeping out of the shadows that seemed like his lonely comfort zone. “Earned It” is his first real hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—Deservedly. it’s the best song on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.

Before then, he’d never had a single that cracked the top 50, which is part of the struggle of critical darlings. His duet last year with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder,” was for him a cool career look and for her a much-needed breach of innocence. Another sign of a true becoming: he’s rumored to be dating a young model by the name of Bella Hadid.

The first scene in “The Hills” video—which is shot in a grim noir-style lighting, his preferred aesthetic—shows him crawling out of a flipped over vehicle while singing in his trademark Casper cry about his attachment to detachment: “I only love it when you touch me, not feel me/ When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” His face is barely perceptible, a step up from the days when his face was completely unknown.

The car eventually bursts into flames as the Weeknd slowly walks down the street, away from the scene of the accident and into a mansion, leaving behind his two female passengers. The video’s premise clearly parallels his music: The Weeknd is always this close to destruction, and everything he does leaves him damaged in some way. Like the best of his music, it’s gloriously eerie.

Until a few months ago, I was never a huge Weeknd fan. The atmospheric quality of House of Balloons piqued my interest, but his next two mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, drowned in confusion. Meanwhile his albums had a hard time bottling his morose emotion coherently. I enjoyed him in bits and pieces—songs like “Wicked Games” and his contributions to (and overall influence) on Take Care, where he co-wrote four tracks (one of my favorites being “Cameras/Good Ones Go”) and enhanced Drake’s immersive sound. His guest appearances, while in line with his moody temperament, are more take it or leave it—I hated “Crew Love” but didn’t mind “Remember You.” His vocals were generally irritating and limiting, or so I thought.

As much as fans and critics—especially dudes in need of a profane man idol—instantly made him their emo hero when he first came out, I failed to connect and used to jokingly refer to his songs as wrist-slit music.

I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that people found comfort in his drugged-up analogies, but even as a pessimist, I preferred my sad girlz music in small doses. This is an email exchange from March 2011 about House of Balloons with two friends:

>>Friend 1: “check this dude out, singer from Canada that’s been working with Drizzy lately. mad emo but this shit dope.”
>>Friend 2: “way too emo for me. i cant fuck with it… idk, this kid annoys me. dont like the drug references either…maybe another time.”

I’m more of a fan now than not. Softening up to a critically popular artist, though, has the effect of feeling like you’re late to the party. The explanation for my slow conversion has a lot to do with how confidently he lives in his darkness, and with my reluctance to slip into that years ago, at a time when I felt largely detached from the world.

It helped that around 2013 while listening to Pandora, I randomly rediscovered “The Morning,” a story of strip club pleasure and pain that made me re-appreciate his descriptive songwriting. It’s rich in a thoroughly depressive and honest way. Some people know that already. A lot of people still don’t. In his effort to be big instead of small, I wonder how much of that dreariness he’ll lose in the process. “Earned It” is a good sign of what’s to come, as much as “I Can’t Feel My Face” may not be. Either way, lyrically at least, The Weeknd will be just as fucked and afflicted as he’s ever been, hiding behind addictions to women, drugs and melancholy.

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Image via Getty

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