The Evolution of Abel Tesfaye

For Abel Tesfaye, widely-known as The Weeknd, navigating fame as one of the most enigmatic figures in music hasn’t been a challenge. Since releasing House of Balloons, his debut mixtape, on March 21, 2011, Tesfaye has climbed the charts to become one of the most popular musicians in the world, garnering billions of streams and a multitude of awards. Despite this, little is known about Tesfaye’s life aside from high-profile relationships with model Bella Hadid and singer Selena Gomez. Because Tesfaye has only given a handful of interviews, including a single on-camera interview with Zane Lowe ahead of 2016’s Starboy, the inner workings of Tesfaye’s mind and soul are almost exclusively revealed through his work.

When Tesfaye released three singles (“What You Need”, “Loft Music”, “The Morning”) on YouTube in 2010, nothing was known about his true identity. The dark R&B ballads revealed a man consumed by his infatuation with hard drugs and women. “The Morning” gave the deepest look into the voice behind The Weeknd, a Toronto-based man striving for fame (“Sky’s getting cold, we’re flying from the North… Order plane tickets / Cali is the mission”) and wealth (“All that money, the money is the motive”). The singles garnerd early praise and attention while tweeted support from Drake, a Torontonian himself, propelled them to mass popularity.

By the time House of Balloons released in early 2011, the anticipation around The Weeknd was on the rise. The mixtape was met with critical acclaim and to this day is widely considered Tesfaye’s best project. Tesfaye transformed his often-toxic lifestyle into sensual serenades about snorting cocaine, popping pills, and one-night stands like no one before him. He instantly became an internet sensation, drawing vocal comparisons to Michael Jackson and reviving R&B as a genre. It wasn’t until a performance at Toronto’s Mod Club in 2011 that The Weeknd was revealed to the world as Abel Tesfaye. With Drake in the crowd, a short-lived creative collaboration (OVOXO) was sparked; the legend of The Weeknd was born.

Tesfaye continued to build on his early success with two more mixtapes in 2011, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. Once again, the projects were met with critical acclaim as Tesfaye began his climb to the top of R&B. Thursday hailed comparisons of being a continuation of House of Balloons and included a feature from Drake, a staggeringly famous artist to have on Tesfaye’s second project. Echoes of Silence was the darkest of the three, as Tesfaye told the story of a relationship that was doomed from the start. Looming, ominous songs made up the final installment in the Balloons Trilogy, and Tesfaye made it clear that he wasn’t scared of the consequences of his life or failing in music on “The Fall” as he sings “I ain’t scared of the fall / I’ve felt the ground before”.

The three mixtapes are known by fans today as Trilogy, a compilation album released on November 13, 2012. It debuted at number-four on the US Billboard 200, cementing Tesfaye’s status as one of the brightest emerging stars in music. Although it was made of previously released music, Trilogy would become a major part of Tesfaye’s legacy as it combined the projects that laid out the path for prominence. Tesfaye had embarked on his first large-scale tour in 2012 and with anticipation for new music building, he released his debut studio album, Kiss Land, on September 10, 2013. The album charted at number-two and while it wasn’t loathed, it didn’t enjoy the similar acclaim as Trilogy. Kiss Land is the culmination of The Weeknd as a strictly R&B singer. The longer, darker songs combine house with funk, classic R&B, and techno beats to back up the lyrics of a still-lost Tesfaye. He strived to create a place with Kiss Land that he’d never been to, a place that was terrifying and filled with personal fear. The album was polarizing but marked the end of a chapter for Tesfaye, as he would soon tinker with his sound and pivot his career into an even more mainstream direction.

2014 laid the groundwork for Tesfaye’s venture into the mainstream. In July, he released “Often”, the first single from his then-untitled second album. It was a new sound for Tesfaye, as it marked his transition from mysterious R&B newcomer to full-fledged pop star. The upbeat production, chorus, and club appeal ushered in a new era of The Weeknd. A few months later, he built on the pop traction, releasing “Earned It”, another single off the album and collaboration for Fifty Shades of Grey, a film that perfectly accompanied The Weeknd’s sex-fueled lyrics. The song would eventually be nominated for an Academy Award. The summer of 2015 marked the explosion of The Weeknd with two singles, “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face”, becoming his most popular music at the time. Both charted separately at number-one and the album was revealed as Beauty Behind the Madness, a pop record through-and-through. It was a completely different sound for Tesfaye, whose lyrical content remained largely the same, focusing on drugs (“Can’t Feel My Face” is directly referring to cocaine), love (“To say that we’re in love is dangerous / But girl I’m so glad we’re acquainted…” - “Acquainted”), and his fast-paced, nocturnal lifestyle (“Go tell ‘em what you know, what you seen / How I roll, how I be on the low…” - “Tell Your Friends”). Tesfaye brought energy to the album, rarely sulking or being retrospective, but rather putting out dance hits that were heard in clubs and cars worldwide. Beauty Behind the Madness was a smash-hit, debuting at number-one and winning a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album.

Despite releasing five bodies of work in a four year span, Tesfaye got right to work on his third studio album, Starboy. Now one of the biggest musicians in the world, Tesfaye had billions of streams and received a $75 million tour advance following Beauty. During his exclusive video interview with Zane Lowe, Tesfaye said that he wanted to take the character of The Weeknd into a superhero status, even going as far as to create a comic book for Starboy. Tesfaye fully embraced his fame, and did so braggadociously, never missing a chance to flaunt his status and fortune (“None of these toys on lease too, ah / Made your whole year in a week too, yah / Main bitch out of your league too, ah / Side bitch out of your league too, ah…” - “Starboy”). Starboy was an instant hit upon release on November 25, 2016. The album was supported by seven singles, including Daft Punk collaborations “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming”, and continued to build on Tesfaye’s pop sound. Tesfaye almost entirely abandoned the slower tracks of his early releases, making Starboy his fastest-paced project to date. He infused hip-hop more than ever, delivering bars on “Reminder”, a song in which he reminds everyone that he’s the best in the industry, and recruiting certified rap stars Kendrick Lamar and Future for features. Per usual, the lyrical content hadn’t diverged from his vices but they weren’t as dreary and didn’t feel to be bringing down Tesfaye as much as they had in the past. It felt like he embraced his mega-stardom while remaining secretive, making his most fun album yet.

Details about Tesfaye’s next album were a mystery, with no insight given to when he’d begin work on it. Tesfaye remained in the spotlight, however, because of his often-gossiped about on-and-off relationships with Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid. A few months after his final break-up from Gomez, a new project was teased by rapper Travis Scott and Tesfaye through Instagram posts. On March 30, 2018, Tesfaye released “My Dear Melancholy,”, a seven-track EP that returned to his dark, heartbroken roots of Trilogy. The EP featured heavy electronic production which allowed Tesfaye to bring back his thematic lyrics with a different background to support them. The lyrics were heavily speculated as there were multiple references to both his relationships, with many of the songs clearly based on Selena Gomez. The EP combined the styles of his previous work, using the electronic sound to fuse pop with his cynical lyricism.

Tesfaye rarely talks to the media, so details about his next album were scarce. He’d announced at a concert in November 2018 that the next chapter was coming but didn’t follow up until August 2019 when he tweeted a selfie with the caption, “album mode full effect.” More active social media posting led fans to believe that something was on the horizon, and his film debut in 2019’s Uncut Gems brought Tesfaye back into the public eye.

As the uncertainty and anticipation began to grow, Tesfaye released “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” over consecutive nights in November 2019, all but announcing his latest album. In February 2020, the album was revealed as After Hours, a Las Vegas-themed thrillride. It was released one month later and became Tesfaye’s most successful release yet, earning one billion streams on Spotify alone within its first week. It once again marked an evolution in Tesfaye’s music, backing away from pop for a return closer to his Kiss Land and Echoes of Silence days. The album details Tesfaye looking back on his career, with songs like “Escape From LA” and “Until I Bleed Out” featuring Tesfaye wanting to escape the spotlight and drug dependency (“It’s been way too long / And I don’t even wanna get high no more / I just want it out of my life…” - “Until I Bleed Out”). He feels as if he’s in too deep with no way out, having to keep up his hard life to be the man the world thinks he should be. Tesfaye marked it as a return to “storytelling”, making After Hours his most complete project since Beauty. The core album has no features, leaving Tesfaye to tell the story he wants on his own. The album was his best reviewed since Trilogy, showing that Tesfaye can, and will, continue to evolve as a person and artist.

Each project adds a layer to Tesfaye’s character, which is why they are often referred to by their “chapter” number. Now 30-years-old, Tesfaye has literally grown up in front of the world and risen to the peak of music, as he is currently Spotify’s most-listened to artist with 62 million monthly listeners. Tesfaye, as a private person, is still very much a secret to his fans. But as he continues to age and experience the trajectory of mass fame, his lyrics will continue to write the story of The Weeknd with not a clue as to what will come next.