Five Burning Questions: The Weeknd Debuts at No. 6 With ‘Take My Breath,’ Makes History With ‘Blinding Lights’
How should The Weeknd feel about his "Take My Breath" launch? And what's the biggest reason behind the endurance of "Blinding Lights"? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more…
It’s a huge week for The Weeknd on the Billboard Hot 100. In the chart’s top 10, the artist born Abel Tesfaye makes the first appearance of his new era with “Take My Breath,” presumed lead single to his After Hours follow-up LP, which debuts at No. 6 this week.
A little lower on the listing, The Weeknd makes Hot 100 history with one of the earliest songs of his After Hours era: “Blinding Lights,” which lands at No. 18 in its 88th week on the chart. That breaks a tie with Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” to make it the longest-running hit in the Hot 100’s 63-year lifetime.
How should The Weeknd feel about his “Take My Breath” launch? And what’s the biggest reason behind the endurance of “Blinding Lights”? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. “Take My Breath” debuts at No. 6 on the Hot 100 this week — like Ed Sheeran’s Weeknd-esque “Bad Habits” a few months ago, the week’s top debut, but perhaps short of the standards of a such a megastar’s first single from a new era. If you’re Abel Tesfaye, how are you feeling about this bow?
Katie Bain: I have to imagine that in a perfect world The Weeknd and his team were gunning for a No. 1 debut. What global pop superstar doesn’t? But the reason we’re even having this discussion is because of longevity, and no one (like, literally no other artist in history) understands as well as Abel Tesfaye the way a song can live and perpetuate on a chart. So, I imagine he’s not panicking in regards to a No. 6 debut, knowing that “Take My Breath” is likely to experience the same rising, falling and staying power as “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears.”
Jason Lipshutz: The Weeknd should be feeling fine, because if the No. 11 debut of “Blinding Lights” on the Hot 100 in December 2019 demonstrated anything, it’s that these things can be marathons instead of sprints! Scoring a top 5 debut or even a No. 1 bow would have been a triumph, but “Take My Breath” sounds primed for heavy radio play this autumn as The Weeknd sets up his After Hours follow-up. Mr. Tesfaye comes alive in the fall time, as we all know, and “Take My Breath” will likely do the same while residing in the top 10 of the Hot 100 for weeks on end.
Joe Lynch: Call me old-fashioned, but I think a top 10 Hot 100 debut is something to crow about no matter how big the star gets. Now, had “Take My Breath” arrived with a ton of remixes or a media promo blitz, I could see him expecting a higher landing. But to release a song that starts at No. 6 — and has huge potential for radio growth — is an accomplishment.
Heran Mamo: I’d say pretty grateful regarding his Instagram post. He wrote about being able to experiment with his music and how “Every song has been a journey.” So I think for Abel, “Take My Breath” is all about the journey, not about the destination. A No. 6 debut is great, but he’s not aiming for some stat (despite setting a pretty big one this week, but more on that later). He’s not even aiming for Grammys anymore after they snubbed him last year. He’s aiming for something on the horizon, something he hasn’t touched before in his music. As he likes to say, “The dawn is coming.”
Andrew Unterberger: A famously competitive pop star like The Weeknd is never gonna be all that satisfied with anything short of No. 1. But the Ed Sheeran comparison is also fairly illustrative: “Bad Habits” may have debuted at No. 6, but major radio support for it kicked in nearly immediately, ensuring that the song would not drop significantly from its debut — and indeed, it’s continued to climb, hitting a new peak of No. 3 on the chart this week. “Take My Breath” is finding a similarly quick embrace at radio, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it betters this No. 6 ranking on the chart in pretty short order.
2. “Take My Breath” continues along some of the ’80s electro-pop and disco fascinations of The Weeknd’s last couple projects, though with some new production elements. Does it feel like a totally new Weeknd to you, or largely a continuation of his After Hours singles sound?
Katie Bain: It’s definitely living in the same world as those previous projects, and it’s certainly not an accident that Tesfaye keeps teasing “the dawn” after coming off of the late-late night darkness of the After Hours cycle. Clearly he’s expanding on a narrative here, and so it makes sense that he’s taken the ’80s inspiration of After Hours and expanded on that too, going full ’80s disco in pretty glorious and unabashed fashion. Just listen to the instrumental version of “Take My Breath” — it’s almost interchangeable with a lot of what Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone were doing in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Jason Lipshutz: Considering how successful his After Hours era has been and how quickly this new professional chapter is coming on its heels, it’s not surprising that “Take My Breath” sounds closely related to his recent hits, to the point where it would make sense as a stopgap single or as part of an After Hours repackaging. And that’s okay: songs like “Blinding Lights,” “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears” are massive crowd-pleasers that found smart ways to incorporate synth-pop and disco influences. Even if “Take My Breath” precedes a project that functions as a victory lap, it’s likely going to be wholly entertaining and not the least bit stale, if its lead single is any indication.
Joe Lynch: Certainly not a totally new Weeknd, but not a retread either. Let’s say it’s the difference between Labor Day Weeknd and Memorial Day Weeknd. He sounds fresh and revitalized (as one might when the dawn has arrived), taking a step forward from where he was on After Hours. That being said, there’s no mistaking the fact that this is a Weeknd song — “Take My Breath” is a natural progression, not a creative rebirth. But he’s never been an artist who wildly rebrands between projects.
Heran Mamo: The similarity doesn’t surprise me, especially since the punchy basslines and retro synths that float above them on both “Blinding Lights” and “Take My Breath” complement each other pretty well. A continuation from After Hours makes total sense considering he said at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards that “the After Hours are done, and the dawn is coming.” There’s bound to be similarities, especially since GQ described some of the new songs from the upcoming album as “party records” and “best-night-of-your-f–king-life- records.” The party isn’t over for The Weeknd, and his ‘80s-inspired disco sound will still soundtrack it.
Andrew Unterberger: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — or even tweak it more than you have to. “Take My Breath” has the same rush as the After Hour singles, with enough new elements — a live-drum snap, a groovy electric piano base, a growling synth bridge — to keep it from feeling stale. I’d say if there’s a fault to be found with “Take My Breath,” it’s actually more in the songwriting than the sound: The lyrics feel a little flat, with uninspired echoes of both new wavers Berlin’s biggest chart hit and Tesfaye’s own “I Feel It Coming” (another “heat between your thighs/legs” reference). Still, it’ll sound great on the radio and on the dancefloor, and as a victory lap single, it’s totally acceptable.
3. “Blinding Lights” spends its 88th week on the Hot 100, breaking the all-time record set for Hot 100 endurance held since 2014. If you could boil all the many reasons for the song’s historic chart longevity down to one word, what would it be?
Katie Bain: Earworm. I don’t know the magic formula for what makes a song stick like this, but I do know that I still listen to “Blinding Lights” every time it comes on the radio or on a playlist, and that it sounds as good and as fresh every time, so maybe the answer is that it’s just an exceptionally written, produced and performed song that appeals to most people with ears.
Jason Lipshutz: Timing. “Blinding Lights” arrived at the precise right moment in The Weeknd’s career — his top 40 radio power secure, his profile yielding huge looks like the Super Bowl halftime show, and Max Martin behind the boards to concoct new magic for the hitmaker — while also fitting snugly into an uptempo radio trend that was at least partially boosted by the pandemic promoting feel-good music. The result was a perfect storm of superstar appeal and beneficial circumstances — and now, chart history.
Joe Lynch: Familiarity.
Heran Mamo: Enlightening.
Andrew Unterberger: Pace. Both its own pace — a heart-racing up-tempo sprint that basically kicked all of top 40 radio up a gear or two — and the pace of pop music in the pandemic-stricken crawl of the past year and a half, which has been slowwwwwwww. With that combination, no surprise it continues to blow past the competition.
4. Let’s take a moment to remember Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” the previous record holder of the Hot 100’s longevity record. How are you feeling about that song in 2021, nearly a decade after its official single release?
Katie Bain: Excellent. Give me a dubstep-infused chest thumper any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Seriously though — maybe the song is a touch dated in terms of its influences, but that melody still holds and, to me, the song sounds as epic as it ever did.
Jason Lipshutz: “Radioactive” is, and may always be, Imagine Dragons’ best song, an astoundingly original gut-punch of a rock single that brilliantly synthesizes its wide palette of sonic influences, from folk to dubstep. The song didn’t have nearly the pedigree of “Blinding Lights” — Imagine Dragons were still relatively unknown when “Radioactive” started taking off as the follow-up to breakthrough hit “It’s Time” — but it helped turn them into the arena headliners they are today.
Joe Lynch: I’ve come around to appreciating what an insanely well-constructed earworm it is. Though I myself have never spent my free time imagining a single dragon—much less multiple dragons—it’s hard to resist screaming along to the chorus when it hits.
Heran Mamo: That was my high school jam! Throwback to my alternative rock phase sophomore year, when all I listened to was Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters and Men and Coldplay. But it doesn’t surprise me that it previously held the Hot 100 record because much like “Blinding Lights,” radio played a major role in the song’s longevity. Both songs also introduced new waves and blends of sounds, with “Radioactive” expertly weaving dubstep into arena rock and “Blinding Lights” paving the wave for more ‘80s synth-pop tracks to flood pandemic-bred playlists and tide fans over the lockdown period. While I’m sad to say I’m over my alt-rock phase, I’m not over the history “Radioactive” made and how relieving it feels to scream “WELCOME TO THE NEW AGE!” That liberating hook, especially after a year and a half in lockdown, is something we all need more of in 2021.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s a classic of its time, for sure — maybe one of the 10 songs you really need to understand popular music in the 2010s. And as Dan Reynolds himself testified to Billboard this week, it still goes off live.
5. With a new Hot 100 record to his claim, a No. 1 single this year already in “Save Your Tears” (as well as a Super Bowl halftime show) and now another top 10 launch to his upcoming album cycle, it’s time to simply ask — is The Weeknd the biggest pop star in the world right now?
Katie Bain: Yes, hands down. Dua Lipa and Bieber may be close behind, but I don’t think any other pop star right now has the global presence, the litany of hits and the X-factor mystique of The Weeknd. I just got back from vacation in Eastern Europe and our rental car only had the radio — the song I heard more than any other was easily “Blinding Lights.” At this point that track is sort of a global common tongue.
Jason Lipshutz: He’s certainly in the top five, which can be arranged based on personal prioritization — whether you value his staying power as a singles artist over, say, Taylor Swift’s accolades, or Beyoncé’s cultural influence, or Adele’s sales might, or BTS’s global sway. But when you’re making a shortlist, The Weeknd absolutely has to be included, and this chart week has crystallized why.
Joe Lynch: Certainly could make an argument that Taylor is still the bigger overall pop star, but considering her next project is another re-recording and not likely to produce any substantial radio hits, one could say Abel is the biggest solo pop star currently focused on releasing new music right now. Is that cagey enough?
Heran Mamo: While I’m quick to want to name fellow Canadian Justin Bieber or his “Save Your Tears” remix collaborator Ariana Grande as the biggest pop star in the world, I think The Weeknd has, well, earned it. From hiding his face during House of Balloons to performing its title track during his dazzling Super Bowl halftime show a decade later, his emergence and transformation from enigma to the most exalted superstar is surprising, undeniable and extraordinary. An Ethiopian guy from Scarborough, Toronto who reinvented the R&B genre with a trio of X-rated mixtapes he released online is literally one of the biggest household names in music after no one knew what he even looked like. And he’s been often compared to the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, with that unforgettable After Hours era red suit jacket and glove ensemble, as well as his ominous, spot-on “Dirty Diana” cover on Trilogy. The Weeknd’s music and signature looks will go down in ages as one of the best.
Andrew Unterberger: I think he’s No. 1 right now, yeah. The Weeknd’s star has been burning impossibly (and ceaselessly) bright for nearly two full years now, and it feels like the culmination of a full decade of lead-up for him. There’s no door that isn’t open to him in 2021, no stage that’s too big. It’s his time.