10-Year High: The Weeknd's Game-Changing Decade

10-Year High: The Weeknd's Game-Changing Decade

by Kemet High

"The first time I ever heard The Weeknd I remember it was raining, I was in Toronto, and I was downstairs in my apartment building," Drake recalled on stage back in 2011. "I remember that I heard two songs; there was a song called 'What You Need' and a song called 'The Party & The After Party.' And I'll never forget… that was the night I realized that this is the greatest thing that happened to music in a long time."

He and Abel Tesfaye are no longer quite so close, but Drake's sentiment still holds up. The Weeknd's decade has been monstrous — we've seen him transform from an unknown alternative R&B artist to a global pop superstar. Since 2009, when his music first surfaced on YouTube, The Weeknd has never released two bodies of work that sound the same. He fell in love with the idea of new experiences and challenged himself to reflect them in his music. "I like to create characters based on different people I've met, and relationships," the musician said back in 2013.

His lyrical content has never frayed, finely describing the cohesive high of love, drugs, and pain. But over the past 10 years, The Weeknd has also been able to relentlessly adapt in what now appears to be a genre-less industry. Unlike at the top of the decade, artists are now finding success from rigging the charts by blending different musical elements into their music. Mixing styles has taken prominence, and has added reason as to how hip-hop songs like Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" can top the country charts. Or pop songs like The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" can top the R&B/hip-hop charts.

Few artists over the past 10 years have been able to do it as successfully as The Weeknd. Because of his mastered ability to diversify himself, his name has been consistently planted in the press, on the charts, among headlining festival acts, and now even movies across the world. Each chapter, as he likes to call it, represents a new journey and conquered style. And as with any good book, no matter how different the chapters are from one another, they combine to create one cohesive story. Although it's far from finished, we're six chapters into The Weeknd's novel, and the world is hooked.

For most people, The Weeknd's journey inaccurately starts with Trilogy. But his first unofficial mixtape The Noise was birthed in 2009. By the time he stepped into the game, music was defined by a dominant arrival of "crank thats" and dance crazes, creating pressure for both rappers and go-to singers like Trey Songz and Chris Brown to make music for the club. The Weeknd's first output was the exact opposite of that, catering to a group of introverted individuals who preferred unapologetically honest songs they could consume in the bedroom rather than the party. Leaked by a group of "salty" producers, The Noise is a combination of old demos, backed by grimey tracks like "Love Through Her" and submissive vows like "Material Girl." The likely unintentional leaking of these songs just added gasoline to a fireThe Weeknd was already cooking up. Unlike most artists who sit on their material until the "timing is right," The Weeknd gave it all he had in 2011. In that year alone, he released over 30 songs in the form of three golden mixtapes: House of Balloons, led by dark lullabies like "The Party & The After Party" and "The Morning," Thursday, led by the birth of OVOXO on "The Zone," and Echoes of Silence, where he fully embraced Michael Jackson's influence on "D.D."

Already prospering with his own releases, Tesfaye also helped co-write and produce Drake's classic Take Care. Chapter I was where The Weeknd defined his voice, and had people eagerly anticipating his next release.

Repackaging mixtape material to sell has become a common practice for artists now. But no one was doing that until after The Weeknd did. In 2012, he compiled three of his mixtapes into a 3-hour-long triple platinum album, also known as the birth of Trilogy. As he was gearing up to drop his debut album Kiss Land in 2013, he left Toronto for the first time and traveled to Tokyo, where he was heavily inspired by the Japanese street culture — hence the merch and album cover art. He stepped out of his comfort zone and found the confidence to release something uncomfortably cinematic and experimental. His Soundcloud at the time only had four songs; "Often", "Or Nah", a remix of Beyonce's "Drunk In Love", and most importantly, "King of the Fall." "King" was starting to feel apt.

The mid-2010s reignited an interest in party bangers, backed by artists like Rae Sremmurd, and trap music from Atlanta's next class of superstars. Artists were having fun with everything they put out, likely not caring about the numbers. It was hard for artists to break the seal — once fans caught onto a hit, they weren't letting go, and would play a song hundreds of times rather than searching for a new one. The Weeknd saw the writing on the wall and decided to dip his hands into the pop world instead. With "Earned It" — a chamber pop song created for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack — he finally found his mainstream success. "Earned It" allowed The Weeknd to talk his shit in a way that was both radio and family friendly, despite the movie's BDSM theme. He then dropped his second album Beauty Behind the Madness, which is both coated in melancholy ("Shameless"), but also jubilantly catchy ("Can't Feel My Face").

Initially fans questioned why The Weeknd was going pop. His explanation was coded into the lyrics of songs like "Tell Your Friends," where he acknowledged his intent to change and leave his Trilogy days behind him. Beauty Behind the Madness rightfully became the number one album in the country. Chapter III was where The Weeknd proved that he could become a chart-topping success. How could he not? The crown was up for the taking, so he snatched it up.

At this point The Weeknd was already credited with creating a disturbingly honest form of R&B. He'd also proven himself in the world of pop with Beauty Behind the Madness, and gained respect from the hip-hop world by bodying songs alongside Travis Scott and Meek Mill. He leaned on electronic music next, adding life to his comic book-turned-album Starboy. Fronted by the self-titled single, Starboy was a celebratory record that simultaneously included every genre he'd once leaned on or experimented with. His 2017 headlining set at Coachella was like a party, filled with dedicated fans who sung along from "Wicked Games" to "Reminder." When The Weeknd first dissociated himself with OVOXO back in 2012, critics ignorantly questioned whether he could build a career on his own — an idea he addressed on "Sidewalks." 2016 was when Drake and The Weeknd met again at the top, just in different ways. After the release of If You're Reading This It's Too Late, Drake had made a commitment to trap. And after Starboy, The Weeknd was clearly more interested in pop. Nonetheless, as predicted back in 2011, they both made it. This chapter was about things coming full circle. As the lyrics went, "if you really made me, then replace me." No one could, and Tesfaye knew it.

People are always worried when their favorite artists start adopting new sounds. In 2018 The Weeknd was due for new music, and the hope that he would drop a throwback to his old themes remained. Now a full blown celebrity, the lack of new music didn't stop The Weeknd's name from hitting headlines. He dated both Selena Gomez and supermodel Bella Hadid, and eventually gave us a soundtrack to those drama-filled relationships by releasing My Dear Melancholy — a welcome plummet back to heartbreak. Neck and neck with "Valerie" as one of the most emotionally driven songs he's ever released, "Call Out My Name" was a throwback to 2011.

To bridge the old style with a new sound, My Dear Melancholy utilized that same electronic feel from Starboy in the Gesaffelstein-assisted songs like "I Was Never There". To close out the six-song EP, "Privilege" is an obituary to his old days. Right when fans assumed that "he lost it", The Weeknd used his next chapter to remind them of why people loved him in the first place. He also asserted that he could bring back his old self at any time.

After announcing his next album Chapter VI, The Weeknd moved into yet another form of stardom. He was cast in Uncut Gems alongside unlikely screenmate Adam Sandler, and starred in a new commercial for Mercedes Benz. To see the name Abel Tesfaye run across the credits of one of the most anticipated blockbuster movies of the year, or during a cable the ad slot, is just crazy. He also dropped off two singles: "Heartless," which debuted at number one, and "Blinding Lights", which debuted at number 11. Surrounded by delicate riffs like Post Malone's "Circles," Maroon 5's "Memories," and Lizzo's "Good as Hell," The Weeknd is still sticking to the dark side on a chart that shows people often just want to feel happy. We've learned not to predict what to expect going forward, but this version of The Weeknd is all smiles, rocking a red suit in an afro with his teeth shining brighter than the Vegas lights behind him. Take what you will from that, but expect a damning mix of darkness and light on his forthcoming new album.

The Weeknd has thrived with his honesty about infidelity and drug use during a fast-moving decade that's caused us to constantly reassess genre. Although we've seen an overwhelming presence of new rappers, and some key dark R&B singers like PARTYNEXTDOOR and dvsn who navigate fully in The Weeknd's old lane, this decade has also marked the fall of rap greats like Kanye West and Lil Wayne, and a decrease in popularity for former sing-kings like Trey Songz and Chris Brown. But The Weeknd has emerged as one of the new greats, and just completed one of the most successful runs in music during a time where things were shifting more than Tetris blocks.

Maybe The Weeknd's "High For This" was a microcosm of his entire career. He was right — listeners had no idea and still don't know what's in store. But whatever happens next, it's guaranteed to be an intoxicating ride that will add the legacy he started ten years ago. Looking forward to 2020, Tesfaye's earned his spot on music's throne. His reign is far from over.


JT: Larger Than Life

Story by Brook Aster / Photography by Leanda Heler / Styling by Briana Andalore / Hair by Tevin Washington / Makeup by Eden Lattanzio / Nails by Tiny / Set design by Milena Gorum