When he was 17—as The Weeknd’s followers will know as part of his origin story—he moved out of his mother’s home. His mother stood and watched him pack and cried; Abel was filled with self-loathing but wasn’t able to express that, or anything else. In the biopic version of his life story, he moved out because he knew he was going to be a star. He was taking a gamble on himself. But that’s not how it happened.
“It was so scary, man,” he says. “If I had been living in L.A., and it was like, ‘Hollywood, here I come…’? But it’s different. I wasn’t even from Toronto. And even making it from Toronto—this is before Drake and everything—it’s not really a believable, realistic thing.
“I don’t think I did it to make it. I don’t think I was like, ‘I’m leaving. I’m going to go become a star.’ It was more like, ‘I need to get the fuck out of here and live another life.’ You know? Be somebody else. Not a star, just someone else.”
Here’s something weird about The Weeknd. So, for a long time, The Weeknd didn’t want anyone to even know who he was. When people first became aware of him, in 2011, after he released the three epic mixtapes that would become his first album, Trilogy, no one knew what he looked like or what his real name was (his real name is Abel Tesfaye, by the way). People didn’t even know if The Weeknd was a person or a group. He was just this voice—a sweet, eunuch-y voice trained in the sacred arts of Michael Jacksonism—that had been completely disembodied from the human who possessed it.
Okay, so on the one hand, Abel didn’t want people to even look at him. And on the other hand, The Weeknd was singing about the dirtiest, most vulnerable things, begging us to not only know the most intimate details of his most intimate moments, but to sing along with them. It’s as if he were the Emily Dickinson of post–R. Kelly deviant-sex R&B singers. Just sitting there in his music studio dreaming up ways to make us look at him and dreaming up ways to disappear, all at the same time.
On a Monday night in early December, Abel is sitting on an Aeron chair in the Conway Recording Studios in Los Angeles. I’m going to say that he looks boyish, and you’re going to think, Yeah, gotcha: like Eddie Redmayne looks boyish or a young Hilary Swank. But he’s boyish. He could easily be a freshman in college. His face is pleasing and kind, but it’s almost…forgettable? Which isn’t what I expected. The only other time I’ve seen Abel Tesfaye in person was when I went to a concert at the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, about a year ago. It was the tour in support of Beauty Behind the Madness, which was, spiritually, the album of 2015, and it announced the arrival of The Weeknd as a bona fide pop sensation. At the Philips, he was a fearsome presence, towering over us on this black scaffolding, backlit in a military tunic and that signature battle-hair, belting out beautiful drug arias to (mostly) women of all ages, stalking the parapets as if he were starring in a moody German production of Macbeth.
But in this recording studio, sitting across from Abel in his plain black baseball jacket, plain black long-sleeve tee, plain black pants, plain black shoes, I detect no hint of that Sex Macbeth. Abel doesn’t need to take up more space than you do in the room. He doesn’t need to Great and Powerful Oz you like I bet a guy like Kanye West would.
(I’ve never met Kanye West. Maybe he’s super humble.)
Part of it is his hair. Gone is that free-form antler-y dred sculpture that a Rolling Stone writer once described beautifully as a “double mullet: party in the front, party in the back” but that always looked to me like a fecund, sylvan thing, like a tree that had been turned into a man by the gods, but not completely. And now, in place of the tree-person hair, is…just hair. Like, normal hair. You once said, I remind Abel, that you’d never cut your hair, because then you’d just look like everybody else.
“I said that,” Abel admits, “but I couldn’t walk around without seeing the fuckin’ Weeknd hair. That’s what I called it. New artists, artists that have been around forever—I’m not going to say any names—but they were fuckin’ growing their hair.”
Abel arranged to meet at Conway because it’s where he recorded the entirety of his fourth album, Starboy.When I arrived, it was nightfall in the nondescript neighborhood of Bullshitsville L.A. Recording studios are always kind of like forward operating bases, if you know what those are—nestled right there among civilians, with extensive perimeter fencing and lots of security cameras. Inside, Abel waited, sitting before an endless menu of dials and knobs, some earthy hardwoods on the walls, a subterranean spelunk-y vibe.
“This is where I’ve been for the last six months,” Abel says. “We lived here. Took over the whole place. Now I see other people in the other rooms and I’m like: What are they doing in my studio?”
The record has now been released. And Starboy, the album, is laying waste to pop culture. The metrics of the album’s success are so gaudy they get almost boring to list: Every song on Starboy is charting out on the Billboard Hot 100 when we meet; the title track has been one of the top three songs for more than a month; Starboy has been streamed more than half a billion times, breaking all kinds of Spotify records—for streams in a day, a week, a month, etc. The record is just hit after hit after hit.
He cut the hair when the album was finished. It had, he said, become his identity. “I worked really hard on this album,” Abel says. “And I felt like I need to relieve a lot of stress. [Cutting off my hair] feels good, ’cause I get to blend in. If I want to go to a club, I can just go and I’m not there. I can go to a restaurant and I’m not there. I look like everybody else, which is boring, but maybe I just want to look like everybody else for a bit.” Yes, he wanted to crush the world with his sound and image and break all the Spotify records, but he wants to run away, too.
He was from nowhere, in a way. He was born in the exurbs of Toronto, but he had just the shallowest roots in Canada. His parents were Ethiopian nationals. He was a good child, a well-behaved child, fussed over by his grandmother and his mother, who raised him. His grandmother showed him off to visitors—he could speak handsome, fluent Amharic, while the children of her friends were taciturn little Canadians, uninterested in performing to the expectations of a generation that’d arrived in North America from another planet. He went to church every Sunday; he was terrified of hell and thought about it constantly, stayed up at night trying to calculate if he was going to end up there. He went to a working-class school and grew up among families that’d been extracted from all over the world and wedged into this banal Canadian place—the wars of Lebanon and Yugoslavia, the diasporas of West Africa and Eastern Europe. And in a way, that’s how he was born into the West: not really of Canada, but from there anyway.
The story of his musical birth is also one of the digital age’s creative success stories. He was saved by the Internet. In the beginning, it was movies. Instead of doing his homework, he watched films online and downloaded scripts. Films that he’d had no exposure to out in the world where he lived, that no one he knew had any exposure to. Dark, psychologically disturbing films—Dead Ringers, Videodrome—which probably isn’t that strange to find out if you know the Weeknd oeuvre. He was obsessed with the film The Machinist. He likes the later, more conventional movies of the director David Cronenberg, but they’re not the same as the earlier films—the freaky ones.
“Eastern Promises is great,” Abel says. “But the later films he started doing with Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence... That was like when Woody Allen started doing Match Point.”
He wrote scripts for short films, began to be attracted to the idea of creating cinematically lush, strange fantasy worlds, which is what he now does with his music. And he started listening to music that wasn’t exactly what his friends were listening to. “I was 14 and I fell in love with Pink Floyd.” Then he says, “The Internet, man, is a beautiful thing.”
He was nationless, pliant. He practiced his Michael Jackson voice. He lived in a furtive little world lit by a computer monitor in the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother. He would download instrumentals and use those to record himself singing. “In high school, I would have a microphone on my laptop, and I would just, like, sing over that stuff,” he says. “I found somebody that had a house studio. He was this producer that was gonna be big. Obviously, he didn’t get big. It was me doing covers. Me finding my voice, pretty much.”
His actual voice, though, he always knew there was something extraordinary about it.
“It was pure,” he says. “It was natural. It was a singing voice. People that I played it for were like, ‘Holy shit,’ you know?”
You have to remember that when the Weeknd became the Weeknd, he was a figure of complete anonymity, just a guy transmitting genre-melding atmospheric songs from inside his apartment. So when he emerged from out of that darkness, he had to learn how to sing in front of people. He had to learn how to perform. I have to imagine that growing that tree-person hair was a function of needing some armor against being seen; he could wear that hair as his identity, without it revealing anything real about him.
“Listen,” a record executive familiar with his career said to me, “it all comes from him—the music, who he is. Those first records—he made them by himself. I don’t know what you think, but the music industry is dominated by radio play. Everyone talks about Spotify and the Internet and how everything’s been changed and anyone can be a star and everyone’s connected individually with their audience. It’s not true. It’s almost always radio play. He was playing to sold-out 2,000-, 3,000-seat arenas, and he had no songs at all on the radio. And that’s just very unusual. And I’m telling you, it all came from him. It was a sound and a music and a lifestyle that he dreamed up.”
x is probably The Weeknd’s greatest subject—cocaine is a close second. But it’s not like regular sex (or drugs). He sings about perversion, darkness, and ecstatic releases that you should probably feel bad about. How it feels to know you’re only getting high/sleeping with a groupie to try to fill some unfillable psychic hole, so we’re bound to be disappointed, but fuck it let’s do it anyway. How it feels to get a blow job while driving a luxury automobile (as in these lyrics from “Ordinary Life” on Starboy): Heaven in her mouth, got a hell of a tongue / I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump / Fingers letting go of the wheel when I cum /…David Carradine, I’ma die when I cum.
The Weeknd is almost certainly the only pop singer of his generation, or any generation, who sings beautiful love songs that pivot on the death by auto-erotic asphyxiation of a 72-year-old former television star in a closet in a Swissôtel in Bangkok.
He also says that the content of his songs derives mostly from his personal experience.
I ask him a little bit about that sexual history he’s recorded in our national pop-music archives. What is it like to kind of emerge from anonymity as a shy Toronto kid in 2011 and suddenly be accosted by probably a lot of fans who want to sleep with you? What are the effects of that? Does the constant solicitation do anything weird to you? Does it alter the way you look at sex? Does it warp your humanity?
He challenges the idea of being constantly propositioned for sex. “I don’t think that’s real,” he says.
But it has to do something to you. Like, take Leonardo DiCaprio, a gentleman who has probably had more, and more varied, sexual invitations than any single human man in the past 20 years. How does that affect someone? Can the act still be meaningful? In order to even be interested at this point, does he need like a dead body or someone with the hindquarters of a goat and the head of the Mona Lisa or something?
Abel says, “I don’t think it’s like that. I know Leo and—when Leo parties, he parties. But when he works, nobody works like this guy.”
Does the nature of, say, groupie interactions give you an oversize sense of self?
“Listen, I’m not walkin’ around like fuckin’ Idris Elba, know what I mean? It’s like…” and here he points at himself: “You’ll probably describe me in this fuckin’ thing. I’m not—look at me, this is who I am. I’m not gonna walk into the club and be like, ‘Oh shit, I’m the sexiest guy in here.’ The reason why they want to fuck with me is because of what I do [in the studio]. So I’d rather just focus on doing that.”
But there does seem to be something about that dynamic that messes people up. I said: Look at Donald Trump. Maybe Donald Trump is sui generis, and whatever type of screwed-up that guy is, well, that’s special to him. But there’s another explanation that goes: After a while, famous men start to see the world that way: When you’re a star, they let you do it.
“I don’t know anybody that would do that,” he says. “I know a lot of people in the industry, and I don’t know anybody. Like, a random girl that, like, you just spoke to? No. I mean… No. How do you even grab a pussy? Like, is it even grabbable?”
He shakes his head.
month before we meet, Abel and the model Bella Hadid broke up. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He says, though, that while he thinks he wants to have kids, marriage he’s not so sure about.
“I feel like I’m the kind of guy that would have kids before getting married,” he says. “The first thing would be kids. Marriage is scary to me, man.”
But he also says that he’s in a different place, psycho-sexually, than he was when he was the person in all those song lyrics.
“Right now,” Abel says, “I’m much more, like, self-regulating than I was four years ago, when I first started getting everything and enjoying life. I don’t focus on it as much as I used to. You know what I mean? Before, it’s like, ‘Holy fuck—this is amazing.’ Right now, it’s like a good song turns me on way more. Like, that gets me horny, like, literally gets me horny.”
It’s not just the hair. That Sex God who drives around in a $1 million McLaren with a live black leopard in the passenger seat (as The Weeknd does in the video for “Starboy”)? The man who sits in the Aeron chair at Conway Recording Studios just is not that person. In conversation, Abel doesn’t even swear that much. When I ask him what he thinks the craziest, dirtiest lyrics on his records are—lyrics which, mind you, he sings to hundreds of millions of men, women, and children from the stages and Spotifies of the world—he says: “I’m not going to say!”
But is it all real, I ask, the stuff you sing about?
“Yeah, a lot of it is experience,” he says. “House of Balloons [his first mixtape, on which he says 'She give me sex in a handbag / I get her wetter than a wet nap'] is based off of a one-bedroom apartment I shared with all my friends. And we did what we were doing and then put it into music.
“And then the newer stuff,” he says, “is like that character in this lavish lifestyle, you know?”
Because, of course, he can’t sing about what it’s like to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto anymore. Now the character he’s playing is an actual pop star.
How did you feel about pop music, I ask, when you were making the Trilogy mixtapes?
“I hated it,” he says. “And then the sound of Trilogy became pop music.” Later he says, “I’m mainstream. I’ll obviously have those purists who will be like, ‘Okay, this guy is too popular, this fuckin’ sounds nothing like Trilogy, so this fuckin’ sucks.’ ”
I wonder if that kind of criticism might make him want to disappear. Do you care about that? I ask.
“No,” he says. “I don’t care at all.”