Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss The Weeknd's Top 40 Debut For 'Heartless'

 Nabil Elderkin
The Weeknd

"The fall begins tomorrow," tweeted the artist born Abel Tesfaye on Nov. 25. Technically it was already two months into the season, but of course it's never proper cold-weather season without new music from The Weeknd, who dropped his new single "Heartless" the next night at midnight. 

Though the song had just a couple days of full tracking to work with after its midweek release, "Heartless" still made its bow in the top half on this week's Hot 100, debuting at No. 32. And that's not the last we heard from Abel last week, either, as he followed the booming "Heartless" with the nervy "Blinding Lights" just a day later. 

How resounding a comeback is this for The Weeknd? And how much potential does it have to get even better from here? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below. 

1. "Heartless" managed a No. 32 debut with less than two full days of streams and downloads -- pretty good, though not as good as his famous ex did recently in a similarly truncated first week. How happy would you be with that finish if you were Mr. Tesfaye? 

Tatiana Cirisano: I’d be a teeny bit disappointed. To be clear, a No. 32 debut is nothing to shrug at. But The Weeknd was one of the biggest names in mainstream pop on the planet just a few years ago, and I’d have expected a slightly bigger reception -- especially for a song so epically wrapped up in public relationship drama, and especially after a three-year drought between full projects. (I enjoyed last year’s seven-track My Dear Melancholy EP, but we haven’t had an album-album since late 2016's Starboy.)

Eric Frankenberg: I think it’s OK. While he had quite the hold over the Hot 100 in 2015-17, The Weeknd has never fully existed as a "singles artist," so to speak. The combination of “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” is a big re-introduction for him, and even if the lead single doesn’t yield the same chart results as “Can’t Feel My Face” or “Starboy,” it feels like a good place to start with more streaming fodder to inevitably come.

Carl Lamarre: I wouldn't be tripping if I was Abel. I think he made a splashy return with not one, but two quality singles, with little-to-no notice. Anytime The Weeknd drops, he will continue to cause waves just because he has the juice of a perennial hitmaker. We know Abel can quickly soar into the top-10 with "Heartless," especially since he's releasing the video imminently. Plus, these songs are just appetizers right before he carts out the real entrée -- his full album. 

Jason Lipshutz: “Heartless” strikes me as more of an opening statement for the Weeknd’s next era than a more substantial or radio-ready return, so a top 40 debut is totally fine given that context. It’s also worth noting that “Heartless” launched during a relatively wonky release week thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday, so the number of streams he collected while everyone in the United States was piling on more turkey or watching the Buffalo Bills play football is actually pretty impressive.

Andrew Unterberger: It's fine, but it's not really a bursting-with-excitement tally by late-2019 standards -- where the No. 15 debut for Selena Gomez's "Lose You to Love Me" really made you take notice that something special was happening with the song, this is more like "eh, fair enough." I'd have at least held out hope for a little more were I Abel.  

2. What kind of potential do you think "Heartless" has to grow on the charts from here? How high do you think it can go on the Hot 100? 

Tatiana Cirisano: “Heartless” is classic Abel: A woozy, hedonistic trip of R&B laced with trap, plus an addictive hook and a steady supply of instant quotables. I think it’ll at least go top 20, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it reach the top 10, especially if a truncated first week already launched it at No. 32.

Eric Frankenberg: Considering its No. 32 debut was based on two days of activity, and the fact that it’s still sitting pretty atop Spotify’s US chart, I’d say it has strong potential. While it doesn’t necessarily meet my personal expectations in terms of innovation or experimentation, it does feel of-the-moment and like something that can play along many of the biggest hits of the last couple years. If I had to guess, a top 5 placement is probably a lock. I don’t know that it has the cultural momentum to go to No. 1 but the upper region of the Hot 100 was been relatively soft lately so The Weeknd’s comeback could be enough to push this one to the top.

Carl Lamarre: As I mentioned with my first answer, I think The Weeknd can zoom into the top 10, and even the top five, with ease. We've watched the No. 1 spot change hands so many times these last few months that it wouldn't shock me if The Weeknd carved out another chart-topping single with "Heartless." Also, the top songs of the Hot 100, has remained pretty steady this year with just a little shuffle in certain spots. I think "Heartless" has enough spice to unseat any of those records once radio and his video release comes into play. 

Jason Lipshutz: I’m a little stumped here, because “Heartless” certainly isn’t as primed for a top 40 takeover as Weeknd singles of years past, or even the other song he released last week… but that unforgiving beat-hook combination could be dominating DJ sets throughout the cold winter months. “Heartless” might take a little while to get going on the charts because its content isn’t as immediate as a “Can’t Feel My Face” or “Starboy,” but the song has a raw magnetism that could guide it into the top 10 in early 2020.

Andrew Unterberger: A heavy-hitter's resumé plus a soft period on the late-decade chart schedule certainly appears conducive to "Heartless" making a sizeable second-week jump, and likely ending the calendar year -- well, the pre-Christmas-rush portion anyway -- in the top 10. Will it follow "Face" and "Starboy" to the top, making it three straight lead single No. 1s for The Weeknd? I'm skeptical. 

3. Like Selena Gomez, The Weeknd also followed his comeback release with "Blinding Lights" the next day. Which of the two do you prefer, and what do you think of this general one-right-after-the-other release strategy?

Tatiana Cirisano: “Blinding Lights” is growing on me. What can I say -- I’m a sucker for those bright, polished synths. Regardless, I think the one-two-punch release strategy is useful for an artist in comeback mode. Not only does doubling down get (and keep) fans excited, but it helps artists introduce their next project without risking that project becoming automatically tied to the sound of its lead single. With these releases, The Weeknd doesn’t have to choose between catering to the mainstream pop sensibility (“Blinding Lights”) and his day-one, core fanbase (“Heartless”) -- or better yet, between those who prefer the in-his-feelings Abel versus the cold-as-ice Abel. 

Eric Frankenberg: Neither song breaks any major ground, but I prefer the melody and groove of “Blinding Lights” to the been-there-done-that of “Heartless.” The one-two punch strategy reminds me of Beyoncé’s I Am…Sasha Fierce singles, or some simultaneous releases from Rihanna during her radio-takeover eras. But while two-singles-at-once used to be for the purpose of dominating multiple radio formats, it now comes in handy in the streaming era. It’s been difficult for songs, sans-remix, to really make a dent on the Hot 100 following the release of an album, since fans can digest the full thing at once for free (or what feels like free). So putting out as many songs as possible before the full album allows for a bigger overall footprint on singles-based charts.

Carl Lamarre: "Heartless" is such a body blow for relationship purists because it's drenched with toxicity. It's your quintessential f--k boy anthem. In a cuffing season where the lovebug is running rampant, The Weeknd extended City Boyz's summer reign with this scorcher. 

Jason Lipshutz: Popular artists are increasingly finding inspiration from the adorable little girl in the “Why don’t we have both?” meme: if you’re torn between releasing an uptempo track or something more contemplative as a lead single, release two singles, monitor which one the world is embracing more fervently, then double down on the chosen one. “Blinding Lights” is the more kinetic, and ultimately superior, new Weeknd track -- it sounds like a funhouse-mirror version of A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and Abel’s wounded-crooner persona gets to wrap itself around a killer chorus. I’ll take this song becoming inescapable for the next three months, please and thank you.

Andrew Unterberger: Gimme "Blinding Lights." To be honest, I think "Heartless" is kind of a bust -- it feels like Abel going through the motions, particularly lyrically, and while the production certainly pops, it doesn't really have that shock of the unexpected that "Face" and "Starboy" had. Not sure "Blinding Lights" is a classic yet either, exactly, but I've had a soft spot for post-punk/new wave The Weeknd ever since he first sampled Siouxsie and the Banshees, and that's not stopping anytime soon. (Justice for "False Alarm"!) 

4. The Weeknd naming a song "Heartless" without acknowledging Kanye West's 2009 hit of the same name in any way: Forgivable or no? 

Tatiana Cirisano: Eh, forgivable. Even though my mind immediately went to Kanye’s version, I don’t think the title use requires an overt acknowledgement -- “Heartless” isn’t nearly as specific or unique a title as, say, “Love Lockdown.” It’s a little too ubiquitous a word in music to own, even if you are Kanye West. And for someone who has written about heartbreak as much, and as deftly, as Abel, “Heartless” is pretty on-brand. You might say he even "Earned It" (sorry).

Eric Frankenberg: Forgivable. Kanye’s song attacks an ex, The Weeknd’s attacks himself. Kanye’s was the poppiest song on an otherwise gloomy record, while Abel’s is the hedonistic tails against the Top-40 heads of “Blinding Lights.” The songs are different enough to avoid direct comparison.

Carl Lamarre: I'm sure Kanye isn't worried the slightest bit, so why should we be? I can understand if Abel followed the same somber blueprint as Ye, but his version strikes a different chord -- it's aggressive, menacing, and the guy is actually on the attack as opposed to playing the victim on Ye's rendition. Plus, Metro Boomin added some extra sauce to make Abel's version knock harder. 

Jason Lipshutz: Eh, it’s forgivable, especially considering the fact that the Kanye West song came out 10 years ago and doesn’t really hold up as one of his more important singles. If Abel’s next single is called “Love Lockdown” and Yeezy gets no credit, then we know something fishy is going on.

Andrew Unterberger: Maybe forgivable, but inexcusably lazy. 

5. "Heartless" is one of a staggering 20 top 40 hits The Weeknd has scored on the Hot 100 this decade. Which do you think you'll remember most fondly in the 2020s and beyond? 

Tatiana Cirisano“The Hills” will always be brilliant. The combination of its sinister, scream-like hook, Abel’s haunting vocals and metallic production make the song impossible to forget.

Eric Frankenberg: “The Hills.” Not only did Beauty Behind the Madness have its share of bangers, The Weeknd’s 2014-15 career and artistic transformation was itself a showstopper. At the tipping point of pop meeting with the underground, he went from unknown Canadian anti-hero to king of the Hot 100 without losing any of what set him apart from the start. And “The Hills” summed all of that up – the drugs, the sex, and the hooks that make it both his best and defining single.

Carl Lamarre"I Feel It Coming" was such a banger. It's rare for someone to give off true Michael Jackson vibes, but he and Daft Punk delivered a home run of a record with that one. I also appreciate how, as an artist, he came out of the gate as this elusive, hidden figure when he debuted in 2011 with House of Balloons -- with such a powerful voice and such magnetic storytelling that he was able to captivate listeners without having to do much on the physical front. Then, when he did emerge from the shadows, he embraced the idea of superstardom and became a stone-cold killer. The mystique of Abel remains, even after his highly-publicized relationships and ever-growing star power. That's a gift we shouldn't take for granted. 

Jason Lipshutz“Can’t Feel My Face,” solely because of the generation-spanning appeal — it’s a song that personifies drug abuse, but damn if I didn’t play it at my wedding reception in 2015. The Weeknd has more striking hits, from “The Hills” to the highest highs of House of Balloons, but the (relatively) family-friendly “Can’t Feel My Face” will endure.

Andrew Unterberger: It's "The Hills," but one that's really grown on me nicely is My Dear Melancholy's "I Was Never There," a brutal torch song with a ghostly vocal, and French producer Gesaffelstein's trademark synths whining in the background like nagging doubt in the back of your skull. Hope the two work together more on Abel's next LP. 

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