Abel Tesfaye has a beautiful voice—and a twisted spirit. Recording under the name the Weeknd, the 23-year-old Toronto musician with the glorious pipes traffics in what might be called R&B or soul, except those genres suggest a smoother, more loving tone than his tracks embody. Whether it’s the music of Motown, Al Green or Michael Jackson, we’ve become accustomed to thinking of black romantic pop as the sound of seduction and finesse: When Marvin Gaye sings about getting it on, his sexual appetite is portrayed as warm and inviting, not cold and disturbing. The Weeknd takes that tradition and makes it more urgent and desperate, turning copulation into little more than an acting out of power dynamics and self-loathing. And yet his albums—including his latest, the powerfully atmospheric Kiss Land—are like a siren’s call. Who knew bad sex and pointless one-night stands could be so alluring?
The Weeknd came out of nowhere in early 2011 with his first mixtape, House of Balloons, which popped up on lots of critics’ year-end lists. Building off samples from Beach House, Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and the Banshees, House of Balloons delivers a moody collection that replaces the usual themes of love songs—getting the girl, losing the girl—with sentiments such as those of “High for This,” in which the singer convinces his partner to get stoned before they have sex. (“Don’t be scared,” he tells her, “I’m right here.”) Sultry tracks about visiting a prostitute (“Wicked Games”) and getting off on druggy decadence (“House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”) recast R&B as a nightmarish netherworld of permanent afterparties filled with freaks.In quick succession, the Weeknd sent out two more mixtapes (Thursday and Echoes of Silence), which weren’t as compelling but nonetheless cemented his commitment to the dark side of romance and youthful abandon. Adding to his appeal as a man more comfortable in the shadows, he refused interview requests. “In the beginning, I was very insecure,” he recently admitted to Complex. “I hated how I looked in pictures. I just fucking hated this shit, like, crop me out of this picture right now. I was very camera shy. People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend. The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing…it reminded me of some villain shit.”
Born in Canada of Ethiopian descent, the Weeknd rarely ventured outside his Toronto hometown and claims to have never been on an airplane “before two or three years ago.” Not surprisingly, there’s a claustrophobic denseness to his trio of early mixtapes, which were officially released through Universal Republic at the end of last year as Trilogy; it has since gone platinum. But from the sounds of his latest record, Kiss Land, the newfound success and critical acclaim have done nothing to improve his outlook or nocturnal activities. Nobody would want his or her daughter to date the Weeknd, but for an hour it’s fun to live inside the singer’s troubled mind.
Kiss Land continues the Weeknd’s tradition of writing autobiographically—“Kiss Land is me doing the things I did in Trilogy in different settings,” he has said. It’s also an extension of those mixtapes’ style. He doesn’t just profess his love for his idols, he brilliantly steals from them, copping Michael Jackson’s falsetto, Prince’s adventurousness and R. Kelly’s neuroses. But he’s also part of a crop of recent performers who are constructing something new from that foundation.
Modern R&B has grown more introspective and individualistic, with artists such as D’Angelo and Erykah Badu exploring deep grooves and intimate details to bend a genre’s limitless pleasures to their personal obsessions. Another contemporary touchstone, the 2008 breakup album 808s & Heartbreak, found Kanye West embracing a more despairing, minimalist sound to express profound melancholy. In turn, Heartbreak’s daring insularity inspired Drake’s Take Care (co-produced by the Weeknd, whom Drake helped champion) and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which have continued this tradition of R&B and hip-hop acts drawing from indie rock, pop and soul to create more vibrant, fluid soundscapes.
If the Weeknd’s peers have transformed R&B into what New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones
aptly describes as “America’s confessional booth,” then the Weeknd is the one who most needs his sins forgiven. It’s not just the drugs and random sex populating Kiss Land that place the singer’s soul in need of saving—it’s his seeming indifference to his decadent lifestyle. There’s little interest in true love or redemption in these songs, and his attitude toward the women who cross his path is, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, disgusting. But because he wraps his debauchery in such gorgeous music, the listener is seduced instead of repulsed.