At 11 o’clock on a humid night under an elevated subway track in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, one stop short of Coney Island, Abel Tesfaye is dancing out of a cloud of artificial fog over and over again. He takes small but forceful steps, his distinctive dreadlocked rooster’s comb dipping, finger-snapping as he mouths a few lines from his new album as The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness.
This song, “In the Night,” is not slated as a single yet. But ever since the 25-year-old Torontonian’s “Can’t Feel My Face” ran away with the summer -- going to No. 1 in August after nine weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 -- Tesfaye’s calendar has been jamming up, and his label, Republic Records, is getting videos banked while it can. Foremost among his big plans: a 22-city North American arena tour starting Nov. 3.
Passers-by gawk, trains shudder overhead, and five or six video crew members snake around Tesfaye with cameras, mirrors and strobes. But he maintains a focused mask. After a dozen repetitions, he huddles to stare intensely at a playback monitor, and with barely a word heads back into the fog. But in the next take, he suddenly makes every gesture broader, every hair-bob higher, and adds a full body spin. “The pop-star life is a new challenge,” Tesfaye admits. The hazy darkness of the music that first made The Weeknd an alt-R&B cult object seems at odds with his newly obvious focus. But meeting Tesfaye outside his trailer during a break, his modest height and equally modest Canadian manners suggest nothing of his lyrical persona as the drugged-up, emotionally disconnected seducer -- only a quiet excitement about his own potential.
When Taylor Swift featured him as a guest at her New Jersey tour stop in July, Tesfaye took the stage with a touch of unease: “When she introduced me and the whole stadium screamed their lungs out, it kind of threw me off. I did not expect that reaction.”
Not long ago, neither did anyone else. The Weeknd first emerged in a fog of anonymity, with three albums he released for free online in 2011, dicing R&B with alternative and classic rock, with little clue to the identity of their maker. They commandeered many ears, most famously those of Drake, who brought Tesfaye aboard for key tracks on his album Take Care. When Nate Albert, an A&R executive for Republic, chased Tesfaye down in Toronto that year, the young auteur professed no interest in a label contract, though Albert suggests now that Tesfaye may have been playing the angles: “I think from his perspective it was a chess game.”
After he finally signed, the online albums were repackaged as Trilogy and sold a surprising 558,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. The comparatively paltry sales (273,000) of The Weeknd’s first new label release, 2012’s Kiss Land, then prompted another reassessment. Live, he was selling out major venues in London, New York and Los Angeles, but he was making little impression on radio or in the mainstream. Then, in September 2014, he was brought in to lend some hardcore edge to Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100. It marked his first encounter with superproducer Max Martin and alerted him to the possible benefits of expert assistance. As a result, “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night” and other tracks on the new album were co-written with Martin and his team. (Album guests include Lana Del Rey and Ed Sheeran; Kanye West produced the song “Tell Your Friends.”) Tesfaye says the process succeeded because “we actually worked together...We never disagreed on lyrics because I’m telling a story in my album, and he respected my vision.”
Yet songwriter Savan Kotecha, a longtime Martin cohort, says things were more complicated at first. “We had some ideas that in hindsight definitely would not have fit,” says Kotecha. “He told us, ‘Nah, I’m not really feeling that.’ ”
The team didn’t “get it” until a Weeknd show at the Hollywood Bowl, where it realized how diverse and hip Tesfaye’s audience was, with the likes of West and Rick Rubin hanging out backstage. “We were trying to bring him too much into our world,” says Kotecha. “We had to learn how to move into his -- to be more dark and innovative, and to trust him.”
“He’s the kind of voice that just can’t go unnoticed for long,” says Ellie Goulding, who covered The Weeknd in 2012. Says Albert: “The culture has come to him.”
Tesfaye admires, even emulates, trailblazing black pop giants. One of his prime role models, along with Prince, is Michael Jackson: When he first read the lyrics to “Dirty Diana,” which he covered on Trilogy, Tesfaye says, “I got emotional -- it’s when I first knew I wanted to write songs.” Indeed, critics have compared the bubble and flow of “Can’t Feel My Face” to Jackson, and Kotecha says the groove of “In the Night” was inspired by the “swing” of Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
How well, though, will The Weeknd’s dysfunctional persona fit with pop stardom? It’s tempting to regard it as a movie-like character Tesfaye has developed -- he’s a cinephile who cites David Lynch when discussing his new album. But he has sworn his songs are based on his life. He has admitted to crashing with women he was led to believe were his girlfriends when he once lost his apartment in Toronto. (Recently, he has been connected with the model Bella Hadid.) In January, he was arrested in Las Vegas after a dust-up with a cop.
Today, says Tesfaye, “I still loosen up, but I have much more control. I can go overboard, but nobody can stop me but myself. Me and myself have a better relationship now than we did back then.” Another bond that has been strengthened is with his Ethiopian-Canadian single mother, from whom Tesfaye became estranged when he dropped out of high school to move downtown and make music. “I couldn’t face her until I made something out of myself,” he says. “I couldn’t go back home as a nobody.”
Tesfaye definitely has become somebody -- a star who mixes outsider vision and mass appeal in a way that may finally justify those Jackson and Prince parallels. Kotecha even thinks Martin’s operation benefited from the association as much as Tesfaye. “We’re grateful he gave us the shot,” he says. “This is different and special.”