Throughout his career, The Weeknd has built a reputation for himself as the guy who creates dark, moody anthems that are fueled by drugs, lust and sex. But there is a key element in his music that has helped elevate his signature sound: beat switches. It’s not to be confused with transitions, though, as those are changes in a song’s tempo where the instrumental may be slowed down or sped up. Instead, a beat switch is an instant shift in the song’s rhythm that introduces a completely different sound.
This switch can be a risky one for artists, as it can ultimately ruin the overall vibe of a song. But The Weeknd knows how to properly execute the concept, which he has continued to master ever since the 2011 release of his debut mixtape House of Balloons. These switches add a unique layer to the artist’s tracks, creating an intense atmosphere that drifts the listener into higher sonic dimension. Sometimes the change is abrupt and unexpected, punching you in the gut with intensity. Other times it is more mellow and places you in a trance. In any case, the switch always forcibly grabs your attention.
Here’s a ranking of The Weeknd’s most memorable beat switches, from his breakthrough mixtape up until this year’s My Dear Melancholy.
11. “As You Are” (from 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:08
As with many songs on Beauty Behind the Madness, this one fails to inject the raw emotion the singer has become known for. Nevertheless, “As You Are” does contain a solid beat switch. And luckily, it prevents the borderline lifeless song from drowning. Once Abel is finished lamenting about his broken relationship over an ‘80s soft rock-inspired melody, the outro rushes in frosty synths and the singer’s pained harmonies.
10. “False Alarm” (from 2016’s Starboy)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:16
“False Alarm” finds Abel unexpectedly experimenting with ‘80s punk, a genre he’s never dabbled in before. The track ignites with raging electronics and a thumping bass as he flips between screaming and singing. The change in rhythm is a short but impactful one, as it only lasts for about 25 seconds. Yet the meditative, traditional Indian-inspired melody is just enough to linger in your mind long after the song is over — and before it transitions into “Reminder.”
9. “Acquainted” (from 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:58
Beauty Behind the Madness is The Weeknd’s most mainstream album to date, but songs like “Acquainted” display hints of his older, more gloomy sound — but it doesn’t stick well enough compared to his past work. The lusty ballad opens with lush melodies that are dotted with moody drums that anchor the singer’s sexual tendencies. It comes off as a bit shallow, but the beat switch — not the lyrics — helps save the song. As the singer whispers about dangerous girls born in the ‘90s, the rhythm transforms “Acquainted” into a hazy sonic cloud.
8. “Loft Music” (from 2011’s House of Balloons)
Time of Beat Switch: 2:33
One of the few uptempo songs from House of Balloons, “Loft Music” is an easygoing track built around a sample of Beach House’s “Gila.” The ethereal production is a direct contrast to The Weeknd’s first verse, which finds him rap-singing without a hook in sight about leading a lady to his loft and convincing himself that he’s better than her boyfriend. Once he’s finished talking his shit, the track fades into a flood of wails from The Weeknd. His taunts of “I know everything” and “What you thinking about?” also add another haunting layer.
7. “Gone” (from 2011’s Thursday)
Time of Beat Switch: 4:20
“Gone” is one of the more minimal tracks from The Weeknd’s second mixtape in terms of production, but it’s still an uncomfortable eight minute-long journey through his drug-filled mind. The pin-like synths bite through your ears while the sparse snares bolster the singer’s increasing anxiety as he dives head first into the narcotic trip. Once the beat switch stumbles in towards the middle, the bass drums weigh the song down so heavily as The Weeknd sings “Gone from the codeine, ‘methazine, lean / Got me feelin’ kinda weak / And it’s kinda hard to breathe.” You then begin to wonder if he is ever going to recover.
6. “I Was Never There” (from 2018’s My Dear Melancholy)
Time of Beat Switch: 2:16
My Dear Melancholy is The Weeknd’s gracious return to tormented and joyless themes that many have been craving since his transition to a more mainstream appeal. One of the immediate highlights is “I Was Never There,” a heartbroken ballad that is co-produced by French DJ Gesaffelstein. Set to stinging synths and sensual drums, the singer heads to a troubling mindset while trying to cope with losing his lover. The song then shifts from being self-destructive to downright selfish, as the misty-eyed latter half places the blame on the woman. The contrasting, feathery melody makes the song all the more mournful.
5. “Professional” (from 2013’s Kiss Land)
Time of Beat Switch: 2:36
“Professional,” the introductory track of the singer’s debut album, presumably tells a tale of a prostitute/stripper (or even alluding to himself as a then-rising star) who is struggling with the idea of fame. This sense of depression is simulated by the opening spine-chilling strings that bellows as the song gets closer to the beat switch. Once the dismal beat kicks in, which is wrapped around a sample of British electronic singer Emika’s “Professional Loving,” the song gets even more somber.
4. “XO / The Host” (from 2011’s Echoes of Silence)
Time of Beat Switch: 4:37
“XO,” the smoky anthem dedicated to The Weeknd’s Toronto crew, embodies Echoes of Silence’s overall wicked theme. Laid atop a strings-based melody that’s fit for a John Carpenter film, the haunting track finds the cocky singer grilling a groupie about her weak, drug-dependent lifestyle. He taunts her about getting with his team as the synths literally echo around his voice. “The Host” (the track’s second half) serves more as an interlude for Echoes of Silence’s “Initiation” — the most terrifying song The Weeknd has ever made. Once “The Host” kicks in, the beat becomes more sluggish as the singer forces this poor girl to be sexually initiated with the XO boys. Based on the lyrics and the melody’s heightened emotions, the outcome is absolutely tragic.
3. “The Party & The After Party” (from 2011’s House of Balloons)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:18
The beginning of “The Party” is so uncharacteristically innocent as The Weeknd lures an unsuspecting girl at a party with temptations of sex and temporary love. The spacey production, rippling with a sample of Beach House’s 2006 song “Master of None,” sets up a dream-like sequence where you can clearly envision the singer plucking a girl from the dance floor. They walk up the stairs and enter a stranger’s bedroom as The Weeknd whispers sweet nothings into her ear while trying to seduce her. The switch comes in post-coitus, with the singer questioning if this hook-up was the right idea. As he sinks deeper into his feelings and the high off ecstasy, “The After Party” swoops in with lush harmonies and tender acoustic guitar plucks.
2. “Kiss Land” (from 2013’s Kiss Land)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:20
“Kiss Land” is a total sonic madhouse from start to finish, and escalates that jolt of a beat switch that he first experimented with “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls.” The first half is the singer’s version of a horror film, complete with frightened screams, a muddled sample of Sébastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle” and misogynistic lyrics. The second half of the song threatens you with clamoring electronic textures and claustrophobic percussion as The Weeknd boasts about his newfound fame. “I went from staring at the same four walls for 21 years / To seeing the whole world in just 12 months,” he murmurs. The murky, pulsating rhythms that shoves into The Weeknd’s rant in the closing verse are so overwhelming that you have to remind yourself to breathe.
1. “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” (from 2011’s House of Balloons)
Time of Beat Switch: 3:26
The Weeknd pierced through the music industry at full force with this title track from his debut mixtape, which ultimately became one of his signature songs. Laid atop a heavy sample of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1980 single “Happy House,” “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” is a disjointed drug-fueled trip that melts your mind for just under seven minutes. The first half of the song embodies peak euphoria, with the rattling bassline, sharp synths and The Weeknd’s acute falsetto sonically mimicking the high of whatever narcotic. But things takes an unexpected turn in the middle of the track, which kicks off the comedown from the drugs at the party. The singer’s voice takes a deeper tone and as he urges girls to take advantage of the party’s pristine glass table tops. His creepy advances are bolstered by the new rhythm, which is spiked with woozy synths and chilling chopped & screwed effects.