Earlier this summer, The Weeknd — aka Abel Tesfaye — topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his sexy, highly-danceable R&B jam “Can’t Feel My Face.” With his chart success, a recent Hot 100 Fest headlining set, and hotly anticipated sophomore album Beauty Behind the Madness (out Aug. 28), it’s a long way from being a mixtape-centric Internet sensation with little pop accessibility.
In this week’s Billboard cover story, part of the Fall Music Preview 2015 (out Thursday, Aug. 26), writer Carl Wilson got a rare first-hand glimpse into the world of Canada-born Tesfaye. Spending time with him at a video shoot in Brooklyn, Wilson uncovered revelations about the enigmatic singer’s persona. Here are five personal revelations we learned about The Weeknd.
1. He Strives to Make His Mother Proud
Tesfaye dropped out of high school, and moved to downtown Toronto to focus on a career in music. “I couldn’t face her until I made something out of myself,” he tells Billboard, speaking about his Ethiopian-Canadian single mother. “I couldn’t go back home as a nobody.”
2. Michael Jackson Made Him Want to Be a Songwriter… and Get Emotional
There’s a reason Tesfaye covered Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” (as “D.D.”) on his 2011 mixtape Echoes of Silence. “I got emotional,” he says, thinking back to the first time he read its lyrics. “It’s when I first knew I wanted to write songs.”
3. He Got a Little Nervous When Taylor Swift Brought Him Onstage
When Taylor Swift brought Tesfaye onstage in July at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium during her “1989” tour stop, he was surprised by the crowd’s reaction: “When she introduced me and the whole stadium screamed their lungs out, it kind of threw me off. I did not expect that reaction.”
4. Topping the Hot 100 Hasn’t Been Easy
“The pop-star life is a new challenge,” Tesfaye admits to Billboard, referencing his whirlwind transformation from shrouded underground star to full-on pop star thanks to moments like collaborating with Ariana Grande on “Love Me Harder” and the No. 1 “Can’t Feel My Face.” Still, he insists his lyrics are based on his life. That includes losing his Toronto apartment and staying with women he was led to believe were his girlfriends.
5. He Played the Major-Label Game Like a Chessmaster
After The Weeknd’s mixtape trilogy rocketed him to notoriety, the artist wasn’t overeager to sign with a label. In fact, he made the industry work for it. “I think from his perspective it was a chess game,” Republic A&R executive Nate Albert tells Billboard. Tesfaye is with Republic now, but back then, Albert had to chase him down on his home turf of Toronto, while he initially showed little interest in signing. Adds Albert: “The culture has come to him.”
Read more about The Weeknd in Billboard’s Fall Music Preview 2015, out Thursday, Aug. 26.