The Weeknd’s up for a startling seven Grammys at this Sunday’s ceremony. Released last August, Beauty Behind the Madness is up for Best Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album. His songs “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “Earned It” are up for a melee of other best-of-the-year Grammys. It’d be more surprising than Dicaprio’s empty Oscar bracket if The Weeknd doesn’t snag a Grammy or two at Monday’s festivities. But where did this R&B singer even come from? He’s maintained an aura of mystery and only recently begun to step out. With only a handful of interviews and one previous Grammy nomination in 2014, The Weeknd has left us all wondering yet wanting more. In his own words, “I think that’s why my career is going to be so long: Because I haven’t given people everything.”
The Weeknd, also known as Abel Tesfaye, is a Canadian native who grew up in the outskirts of Toronto. Tesfaye’s mother immigrated from Ethiopia to Toronto in the eighties. A fatherless and only child, Tesfaye was raised primarily by his grandmother, who taught him his first language, Ethiopian Amharic. He claims that his unique vocal style is influenced by a mix of African habesha singers and Michael Jackson.
He started singing as a teenager. Tesfaye dropped out of high school at 17 and moved into a one bedroom house in Toronto with two friends. They all began making music together. First he formed a hip-hop group called Bulleez-N-Nerdz. He rapped under the name Kin Kane, a play off of his first name Abel (brother of biblical Cain). When the group didn’t pan out, he joined a production team called Noise as a songwriter for pop and R&B songs. He was partying a lot between 2008 and 2010, a time he referred to as his “hazy years” and a time of his life that became the inspiration for his songwriting.
He began recording songs with his friend Jeremy Rose and uploading them to Youtube as The Weekend since he and his friends, “left one weekend and never came home.” Tesfaye soon went solo and dropped the “e” to qualm copyright issues with another band under the same name. Tesfaye kept his public persona shrouded in mystery–even though he had an online presence for his music, he declined to do any interviews during the start of his career. That’s why so many people know little about him. He told Rolling Stone that working the mystery angle was only part of the reason he refused interviews. He was apprehensive about coming off as uneducated, “Me not finishing school — in my head, I still have this insecurity when I’m talking to someone educated.” In this 2015 interview he mentioned that he’d just bought his mother a “huge house” back in Canada, but claimed she’d be happier if he would earn his diploma.
The Weeknd is the 12th artist ever to score back-to-back Number One hits. “The Hills” stayed at the top of the Billboard chart for over a month, replacing his other Number One, “Can’t Feel My Face.” His appeal comes from the bittersweet mashup of chilling, dark lyrics mixed with indie rock undertones and traditional R&B romance. He’s a dark dude, deriving most of his lyrics from personal experiences of sex, drugs, and partying. But he understands how important it is to stay true to the music. “It’s all about songs for me right now,” he told Rolling Stone, “the production can be cool and crazy-sounding, but that’s just special effects. If you can’t strip it down and play it on piano, it’s not a good song.”
Like most musicians, their music reflects their realities. The Weeknd’s music is so dark for a reason. For a while he was homeless, couch-surfing and he didn’t talk to his mom for a year. Drugs often numbed the pain, which is why he says “those are my hazy years.” The art of the allure of the Weeknd’s music is its emotional chilliness — the way he creates a world that sounds both sexy and numbed-out. Tesfaye says the sex in his music is mostly autobiographical. Drawn down from his experiences. Which is why “Beauty Behind the Madness” is more like a cocaine bump – shorter, tighter, more energetic. Beware, its cold out there!