Many times I spoke with others who wanted to know how I make the choice to feature an artist on a given week. I work hard to stay several months ahead in my planning. However, events take place that make changes inevitable. Such was the case two years ago as I wanted to feature the rising R&B star called The Weeknd. I had to reschedule because of other compelling artist news and/or events. Now here we are two years later with a Weekly Music Commentary feature on a major star – The Weeknd. How did he get so far in the music industry? It would be good to look at his life before the music started.
Abel Makkonen Tesfaye; born February 16, 1990, is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer. Born in Toronto, Ontario and raised in the neighborhood of Scarborough, Ontario, a district in the city’s east end, Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) is the only child of Makkonen and Samra Tesfaye, who were Ethiopian migrants to Canada in the late 1980s.
During his youth, his mother would work several jobs to support the family, often taking odd jobs as a nurse and caterer. She would also attend night school to learn English. His father later abandoned the family, prompting his maternal grandmother to take care of The Weeknd. This allowed him to become fluent in Amharic in his early years, with the Semitic language acting as his first language. His grandmother would also take him to services at an Ethiopian Orthodox church.
The Weeknd began smoking marijuana once he turned 11, and later moved on to harder drugs, often shoplifting from local supermarkets with a high school friend to supplement his use of ecstasy, oxycodone, xanax, cocaine, psilocybin, and ketamine.
He attended both the West Hill Collegiate Institute and Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute in the district, however, he did not graduate from either of these high schools. The Weeknd chose to drop out from the latter in 2007, and left home. Thus he credited his stage name as being inspired by his high school dropout status “after [he] left one weekend and never came home”.
Even though The Weeknd experienced a very troubled childhood, just three years after dropping out of high school things would start to change for the young artist. The Weeknd met Jeremy Rose in 2010, a producer who had an idea for a dark R&B musical project. After initially trying to pitch the idea to musician Curtis Santiago, Rose played one of his instrumentals for The Weeknd, who proceeded to freestyle over it, prompting the duo to begin working on an album together. In December 2010, The Weeknd uploaded “What You Need”, “Loft Music” and “The Morning” to YouTube, although his identity was initially unknown. The songs drew some attention online, and were later included in a blog post from Drake. The songs then received coverage from various media outlets, including Pitchfork Media and The New York Times.
On March 21, 2011, The Weeknd self-released his début mixtape, House of Balloons. The mixtape received rave reviews. Maegan McGregor of Exclaim! stated that House of Balloons “easily stands as one of the year’s best debuts so far, hipster, top 40 or otherwise.” Sputnikmusic’s Tyler Fisher said that “despite being a free album, House of Balloons feels like a true album, a true labor of love.” Yes, House of Balloons would seem to be a great place to start a career. Much more music was on the horizon.
After viewing a live performance by The Weeknd in Toronto, Drake then approached the artist, and described a potential musical collaboration between the pair. The Weeknd also accompanied Drake at his various shows, often performing as the opening act for shows scheduled at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, as well as appearing at the second annual OVO Fest in July. The two worked throughout the summer on music that would appear on Take Care, Drake’s multi-platinum Grammy Award winning sophomore studio album.
The Weeknd made some very wise promotional decisions when it came to releasing his mixtapes. With his identity still relatively unknown, The Weeknd refrained from participating in interviews, choosing to only communicate via Twitter. This allowed the music to speak for itself long before anyone could attach it to an artist. Before the end of 2011, The Weeknd would release two more mixtapes to critical reception. The three mixtapes were collectively known as the Balloons Trilogy.
After a couple of years of even greater success which included the release of The Weeknd’s début studio album Kiss Land, we reached the year 2015. The young man from Toronto would reach historic musical levels along with the release of his second studio album Beauty Behind the Madness on August 28th. Before the album release he became the first artist ever to have simultaneously held the top three spots on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart, with “Earned It”, “The Hills”, and “Can’t Feel My Face”. Beauty Behind the Madness also became The Weeknd’s first number one album on the US Billboard 200, and saw triple platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The album additionally oversaw his first Grammy Award win for Best Urban Contemporary Album, as well as “Earned It” winning Best R&B Performance. He won both awards at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 2016.
Was it possible for The Weeknd to follow such a successful album with more hit music? The answer is Yes! Starboy is the third studio album by the Canadian singer. It was released on November 25, 2016, by XO and Republic Records. Starboy debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 with 348,000 album-equivalent units, including 209,000 traditional album sales in the first week. It also debuted at number one on Billboard’s Canadian Albums Chart. In an interview with Billboard, The Weeknd revealed that heavy influences on the album were 50 Cent and the Wu-Tang Clan. The Weeknd said in the interview: “The vibe on Starboy comes from that hip-hop culture of braggadocio from Wu-Tang and 50 Cent, the kind of music I listened to as a kid. Bragging just sounds good, man. I was a teenager when I saw Scarface, and even though it was unbelievable, it’s kind of cool Tony Montana could survive all those gunshots and not feel them.”
I think we are hearing just the beginning of The Weeknd and his music. Like Scarface, The Weeknd just keeps coming at us; but with more music. Get ready folks! There’s much more to come.