The Weeknd peaked long before anyone (including us) ever gave a shit about him
Abel Tesfaye has reached a level that is easy to forget even exists. Not many artists, not many public figures in general ever find themselves with the amount of fame and international notoriety that Tesfaye, more commonly known as The Weeknd, boasts. His following extends so far outside of R&B and so far from his native Toronto that he has become one of the world's most recognizable pop stars, and with it has come a reach only seen in the R&B community by the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince who, like The Weeknd, were far too talented and varied to belong to the labeling of a single genre. But with the fame, the reach, and the status have come the tribulations of such over-the-top celebrity - especially for an artist as bold and explicit as The Weeknd.
Like to admit it or not, his reputation and his sound have been tarnished by the fame if for no other reason than the fact that his biggest support no longer comes from the R&B community, but has been surpassed by middle-aged persons desperate to reignite their libidos. By no means is it his fault or for that matter, even something to consider a fault. He's famous. He's successful. He deserves to have his music plastered throughout Hollywood, and to reach a global audience through multiple media.
But what we can blame The Weeknd for, what we can consider a fault is the slowing rate at which he aims to push the boundaries of his craft. An artist that was certainly once the most innovative and experimental in all of R&B now spits out albums, beautiful as they may be, eerily reminiscent of his other recent work. You may find yourself thinking of the classic adage: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," and in financial sense and for the sake of universal fame, I absolutely agree. Why should The Weeknd adjust a winning formula? But in creative terms, to the idea of The Weeknd wanting to be one of the best of all time, his last two albums have been lacking bite, and honestly, it's the simple continuation of a pattern heard in his music since the beginning.
Which leads us to one conclusion: The Weeknd was at his best when he first began but his bold and new pristine wax figure has since melted into the glass cup which once only held his R&B and pop foundation. Sure he is safe in his surroundings, and sure everyone can see him, but he is no longer growing. In fact, he is regressing. The simple truth is that Weeknd peaked long before anyone ever gave a shit about him.
It’s a shame that the three mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, which were remastered and rereleased as The Weeknd’s debut album Trilogy in 2012, were not more immediately embraced by the public. They received some critical acclaim and earned him a favorited spot on Artists to Watch lists, but little if anything that he has released since has stood ground with the influence and creative genius of his debut work. A more universal spotlight has been shown on it in recent years, but that’s only due to new fans discovering his early music.
When he followed up Trilogy with his sophomore album Kiss Land in 2013, his limited and hardcore fan base embraced the creative direction of the project. It didn’t necessarily align with other R&B music of the time, and that’s what fans loved so much about it. Kiss Land was one of the early R&B albums to so thoroughly exhibit strong, experimental electronic production, which Tesfaye attributed to his time spent making the album in Japan. His clean, perfect vocals and dark, gloomy lyricism culminated in an album that would set the stage for R&B’s future.
And then came Earned It. At the time of the soft, steamy Fifty Shades of Grey anthem’s release, The Weeknd was a big name in R&B and a growing artist on the entire music scene, but Earned It turned him into a pop music icon overnight. With a safe, family-friendly vibe to this day very rarely displayed by The Weeknd, approachable, bubbly production, and themes addressing the positive aspects of love rather than his broken-hearted, lust-first tendencies, the single would also come to polarize his audience. Fans who fell in love with The Weeknd’s music because of his honest and pain filled approach felt pushed aside by the release which made room for a much larger, much more powerful, much wealthier influx of fans romanticizing love ballads in the popular music realm. It just didn’t seem to fit him, which is particularly odd because it would come to define him and take charge of the direction of his music.
When Beauty Behind the Madness was released shortly after, much of the album, like Often and Angel, were reminiscent of his early styling and explicit content - bold discussions of sex and a cold-hearted stance on love. But other songs on the album seemed to play towards the direction of his new found pop audience. Earned It alongside I Can’t Feel My Face not only found prominent positioning in the meat of the album’s lineup, but also became two of the three most popular songs from the project; the other being the violent and dark hit, The Hills. It was clear that a rift had grown between the differing sides of The Weeknd’s audience, and it would soon become clear that, to this day, he has no idea how to address the problem.
The slightly experimental rock style that brought together Beauty Behind the Madness and opened the door for pop stars Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey to shine as feature artists gave The Weeknd a nod for creative direction, but more than anything, just made the project a further catalyst with which for him to explode as a pop star.
And the trend continued with Starboy. By the time of the album’s 2016 release, The Weeknd had become one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, headlining Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows and dating the models in the process. He was at peak badass as a celebrity, but nowhere near his peak musically. The album was a hodgepodge of mismatched stylings lacking direction from an artist confused by his own music. His powerful delivery had not failed, but the music surrounding it and the direction it was headed seemed largely unappealing to the hardcore R&B circuit and hip-hop fans. Starboy is a project by an artist who would rather be a good pop star than the king of R&B, and though the decision is understandable, it is not the direction taken by history’s best artists.
Consumed by fame and desperate to appeal to the mainstream, The Weeknd has lost what once made him so special – his innovative and unique approach to his music. At the same time, he is failing to meet the requirements of his mainstream audience because of his often insensitive, brutalist approach in order to appeal to his old fans. The Weeknd seems stalled by his differing fan bases and unable to pull the trigger on bold decision-making and risks that, in the past, have lead to influence on music’s direction. His prowess has been replaced with predictable and wavering releases and leaves his future music unorganized, unexciting, and questionable. He is drowning in the grey area between polarizing forces, and if he doesn’t just pick a lane soon and stick to it, especially with the vast collection of looming R&B stars, he will never be atop music again.
Listen for yourself and decide which Weekend you prefer