All of the lights are off in the Weeknd’s apartment. It’s 49 floors up, high above the long shadows of Toronto’s financial district, and the clouds outside make everything in this sparse and tidy condo look monochrome. There is a white leather sectional stationed on a white rug so plush it would be disrespectful not to take your shoes off before walking on it. Platinum records for his 2012 mixtape collection Trilogy hang on the walls. A massive window reveals Lake Ontario, which has been a blueish boon to winter-weary city folk all summer; on this evening in late August, it’s grey, a precursor to the grim season ahead.
Abel Tesfaye strolls into the room and sits down at a long, dark, smoked-glass dining table. He’s in house clothes: a black Miami Heat mesh short-sleeve with fitted black jersey-blend pants and white house slippers. A child of immigrants who was raised in the bustling, brown suburb of Scarborough, he wears a filigreed Ethiopian cross around his neck—it’s the kind of token that stays hidden beneath clothing, but never comes off. His hair, the subject of so much curiosity and so many memes simply because he does whatever he wants with it, is there on his head as it should be. Mugs of green tea are set down on a folded paper towel, in lieu of coasters. Tesfaye smiles easy and often and is comfortable locking eyes, except when challenged to speak at length on his music.
Then, he furrows his brow and speaks in clichés; his eyes swerve to the left; he stares at the iPhone set between us that is recording his thoughts; or he picks at an invisible blemish on the crook of his left arm. Otherwise, he asks questions. He seems eager to please, if not a bit nervous. When we say goodbye, Tesfaye’s last words are: “Write good things about me!” This is not the Weeknd I expected.
The night before at The Mod Club, a cozy, 600-ish capacity venue west of Toronto’s downtown core, Tesfaye was a young god. The show took place exactly four years, one month, and one day after he stood on that same exact stage, clutching the mic like a totem, and performed as the Weeknd for the very first time. “You can look back at the videos from that first show and see how nervous I was,” Tesfaye says. “I was shaking. I didn't move from that mic stand, I was holding onto it for dear life.”
To commemorate the full-circle moment, he wore the same beat up camo jacket last week; on his feet, though, were brand-new black Yeezy Boost 350s. The show was in celebration of Beauty Behind the Madness, his fifth full-length project (and first as a bona fide celebrity), and over the years, Tesfaye has become adept at working the stage. So this time, the production was scaled up to match his arena status: camera rigs taping a Vevo special, a floor-to-ceiling wall of his album art, signature cocktails at the bar.
This sort of gleaming industry machinery—along with the algorithmic pleasure of Tesfaye’s first #1 single, “Can’t Feel My Face”—has some long-time fans freaked out. Gone is the anesthetized apparition making R&B out of mixed samples and malice (although the rampant misogyny remains); in his stead is pop music’s newest conquistador, a dancing, Max Martin-buffed chameleon, shacking up with multiple lucrative fanbases (Ariana Grande, 50 Shades of Grey, Ed Sheeran). But Beauty Behind the Madness, whose personnel also includes the singer’s spiritual mentor Kanye West as well as his longtime collaborator Illangelo, is only a surprise for those who thought the Weeknd was a passing fad. R&B was never Tesfaye’s strict domain, it just took him a couple of years to convincingly transpose his spectral brand of nihilism onto a radio-ready template.
Look no further than a hook from his breakthrough 2011 mixtape House of Balloons and you’ll see that he’s been about it from the start: “All that money, the money is the motive.”
“I love villains—they’re the best characters in movies, right? The Joker is my favorite villain of all time: You don’t know his past, you just know what his plans are.”
Pitchfork: When did you first start to sing?
Able Tesfaye: I’ve been singing my whole life. I’d randomly sing in the hallways at high school, and all my friends would be like, ‘You should sing on ‘Canadian Idol’!” It definitely gassed me! So then I got a microphone and a shitty computer and started recording these corny songs with my friends, Boyz II Men covers and shit. I would listen to it and I thought I sounded OK, but I was still shy, you know? But playing arenas gave me that confidence, like, “Maybe I do have that star quality.” I still don't feel like I'm 100% there yet, but I always knew I wanted to be a star ever since I knew that I could sing. I can never be Michael Jackson or do what he did, but he is definitely a good inspiration: I want to give the kids that feeling.
Pitchfork: What feeling is that exactly?
AT: When Michael died, it felt like part of my family died. I want [my fans] to know that my music is for them and if, god forbid, anything happened [to me], it would be like a piece of them is gone. That's what he made me feel. That's what I want to do. I'm grabbing that side of me and putting it out to the world—and the R. Kelly side, and the Prince side. All three are my inspirations, and you hear all of that on this album.
Pitchfork: What do you find musically interesting about Prince?
AT: Prince was always just pushing the envelope. Michael was doing that too, but he wasn’t as experimental. Prince turned experimental music into pop music. "When Doves Cry”, the whole Purple Rain soundtrack—he was inspired by the Cocteau Twins and new wave pop and brought it into R&B when he first started, and then it became this cool, next-level, kind of hard-to-digest music. Which is what I felt House of Balloons was. Image, lyrics, content, storytelling, cohesive body of work: That's Prince to me. Michael had cohesive bodies of work, but every song was its own song, and usually I can tell a story with my albums. R. Kelly is just a child of Michael and Prince; I want to be that of my generation. I mean, I hope I can be that.
Pitchfork: Why did you decide to chase a more straightforward sound with this album?
AT: For a while, I didn't focus on the commercial success. I really was going at the punk aspect of everything, which worked, but I felt like it got redundant. I owe it to people—to my family, to myself—to make music that makes me feel good and also is a little easier to understand.
Pitchfork: Does it mean anything to you to have songs on the charts?
AT: Yeah, it does, because now I’m grabbing the ear of most of the world. I’ve had this door open for a long time and now I’m inviting people in. It’s going to be fun, and I’m going to use this opportunity to make great music because I know the whole world’s listening. It inspires me. Now that I know people are expecting and anticipating great music, I’m going to make great music. [pauses] With great power comes great responsibility. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Did you anticipate people would say that you’ve changed?
AT: Yeah. I put “Real Life”, “Tell Your Friends”, “Losers”, and “Often” at the beginning of the album because I’m telling a coming of age story. It’s a reminder that I’m not gone.
Pitchfork: I’m not convinced this album is actually all that different from what you’ve always been doing; the melodies are just stickier and the songwriting is stronger now.
AT: It’s like science at this point. I love when [fans] sing subconsciously, where it's like, “I know that melody.” I feel like a lot of people who say I'm doing something totally different are just getting into House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, and they’re like, “Oh my god, I want more [of that style].” But back in 2012, when I was continuing to do that kind of music, people were fed up with it. They were like, “This is all he can do?” I owe it to myself to show the world how versatile I can be, because that’s not all I can do. Why can't I try something that challenges me as an artist?
Pitchfork: Did you have to learn how to write pop songs?
AT: No. I didn’t have to learn. It’s always been in me. I just had to be confident enough to let it out. Working with producers like Max Martin and Kanye West, I’ve learned to do certain things technically and make a song in a different way than I usually would, but it’s always been in there.
Pitchfork: What was it like to work with Kanye on “Tell Your Friends”? The vibe reminds me of “Devil in a New Dress” from Twisted Fantasy.
AT: He used “Devil in a New Dress” a lot as a reference for that song. Everyone’s a character on my album, and his production, voice, and input is a character, too. There’s so much detail in his sessions, and he definitely helped craft who I’ve been, subconsciously, for the past few years. To actually be with him and talk to him and work with him, it’s just like coming to life. He had to make the same decisions I did: College Dropout, Late Registration, and then the shift into Graduation, and another shift into 808s & Heartbreak, which got mixed reviews but is one of the most important bodies of work of my generation. Kanye needed to be on this album, because I feel like I’m going through what he’s been going through—reinventing himself and pushing the boundaries. And he looks at himself as pop. He says, “I’m a pop artist. You can’t put me in one category.”
Pitchfork: What character did Lana Del Rey play on the album?
AT: Me and Lana have been friends for a long time. I’ve inspired her, she’s inspired me. I feel like we’ve always been talking to each other through our music. She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music. It’s just this ghostly collaboration that feels the most natural on the whole album. Even the whole monologue intro on “Lonely Star” from Thursday—I just realized now that that’s Lana. That’s Lana’s voice. [laughs] I mean, it’s my voice pitched up, but it’s her, it’s who she is. She was definitely the first feature that I wanted to bring on this album.
Pitchfork: Has anyone ever called you out about the way you talk about women in your music?
AT: In my life? Yeah. But I don’t feel like I’ve ever pushed it to the point where they can’t understand or respect the art, because it is art. Music is like film to me. When Tarantino makes a movie he gets people shitting on him 24/7, but it’s his art, and he stands by it. And at the end of the day, my listeners love it, I love it, I hope you love it. [laughs] The music I make on this album is definitely matured. It’s a bit of a different state of mind even though it’s the same person. You grow and you grow and you don’t know what the next album is going to be about. You never know what I’m going to say.
"Lana and I have always been talking to each other through our music. She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music."
Pitchfork: You retweeted a recent Pitchfork piece about how your East African roots are reflected in your music, what did you think of it?
AT: It’s the first time any writer has really dove into that part of me and my music, but it’s always been there. That’s how I was raised. My mother, my grandmother, my uncles would play Ethiopian artists like Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke all the time in the house. They would drink coffee, eat popcorn, and listen to the music. It’s such beautiful music, but I didn’t realize how beautiful it was until I left that head space. That’s why I feel like my singing is not conventional. I mean, if you look at technique, I’m not a technical singer; I know I get bashed by R&B heads 24/7. I’m not here to do Luther Vandross runs. I can’t do what Jennifer Hudson does. But the feeling in my music and in my voice is very Ethiopian and very African and much more powerful than anything, technically.
There are songs like “Gone” where I don’t even know what I’m saying—I let my voice do all the talking. I’ll probably do an album like that one day where it’s not lyrics at all, just melodies and great production. Maybe the next one, I don’t know. That’s the Ethiopian side of me. I didn’t know what [the musicians] were saying when I was younger: Just because you speak it doesn’t mean you really understand what they’re saying. Ethiopian poetry is a different language. I can speak and understand [Amharic], but I can’t understand their poetry. When my mother would translate—it’s the most beautiful thing ever. I’ve never been back home to Ethiopia, but when I do go I’m going to make it very special.
Pitchfork: There are a lot of redemptive ideas on this album, but on “Tell Your Friends” you call yourself a villain. Do you like playing the villain?
AT: [laughs] Do I come off as a villain? Yeah, it’s cool. I mean, I love villains—they’re the best characters in movies, right?
Pitchfork: They’re usually the most complex, anyway.
AT: 100%. The Joker is my favorite villain of all time: You don’t know his past, you just know what his plans are. The Joker that Christopher Nolan created in The Dark Knight had the scar across his mouth, and the first time you heard his explanation for it, he makes you believe that’s how he got it. But then you get into the film, and every time he talks about his scar, it’s a totally different story. That tells you what kind of person he is; he’s not telling you who he is. It’s kind of how I am—or how I was: You know me, but you don’t know me. I give you what I want to give you. I relate to villains like that—but I’m not out to destroy the world. [laughs]