The Weeknd took a long time to get here.
The Toronto-based singer-songwriter emerged in 2011, armed with a penchant for mopey lyrics and coldly affecting melodies, a musical child born of fathers as varied as 808s & Heartbreak era Kanye West, R. Kelly and the more subdued side of Michael Jackson (think “Stranger In Moscow.”) He would make a name for himself with the triptych of indie EP releases that year, House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence (which were compiled into his 2012 release Trilogy) and singles like “Wicked Games” and “Wanderlust” served notice that he was an artist to take seriously. On the string of his indie mixtapes, he became one of the most talked-about artists in what some were calling a new wave of “alternative R&B” that included the likes of Frank Ocean and Miguel. But he didn’t have their resume nor their industry clout.
Frank Ocean’s moment of commercial “graduation,” of course, was the ubiquitous Channel Orange; an album that became a definitive mainstay in 2010s music; and Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dreams was nearly as omnipresent. But The Weeknd still operated under a shroud of mystery: a camera-shy Drake-affiliated singer-songwriter who was thriving on the near-fringes of pop culture to the point where it was a while before fans even knew what he looked like or whether “The Weeknd” was the moniker for an artist or a collective. The haze began to part with his debut studio album Kiss Land and his hit single with Ariana Grande “Love Me Harder.”
But it was the appearance of “Earned It” on the soundtrack for Fifty Shades of Grey that took The Weeknd straight to the forefront of pop culture. With the success of the film, the song became an inescapable hit in early 2015; and all of a sudden people who’d never heard of The Weeknd were fans. Then came “The Hills” that spring–another single that crashed into the Top 10 before peaking atop the charts; and in June, he dropped “I Can’t Feel My Face,” an ode to love and/or cocaine that rocketed to No.1. It all set the stage perfectly for his follow-up to Kiss Land, an album of (gasp!) pop songs that were ready-made for radio. He was still as mopey, as druggy and as cold as he’d ever been; but now The Weeknd was finally catchy.
Beauty Behind the Madness was released that August and the album has gone platinum on the strength of those huge singles, elevating The Weeknd, finally, to the kind of commercial visibility that Ocean and Miguel enjoyed four years earlier when The Weeknd was still “the strange guy with the hair.” …Madness is also up for the Album of the Year Grammy, a testament to how major this once indie stalwart has become. “Earned It” is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song.
Of course, there is no crossover without some backlash. The mere mention of The Weeknd in the same breath as Michael Jackson sends some fans into a blinding rage, his penchant for iciness doesn’t endear him to those who like their tunes with a little more warmth and resonance, and he sometimes still relies too much on feel rather than structure in his songs. But it can’t be denied that 2015 was the year that The Weeknd finally arrived.
The question is: what does he do now that he’s here?