Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Just who is the Weeknd? A look at the complicated breakout star of 2015

The first time you saw the Weeknd's name in print, you may have scratched your head.

Is it pronounced "weekend," like the fun you have on Friday and Saturday night?

Or is it pronounced "weakened," as in the anguished state your body feels afterward?

It's confusing, because both pronunciations fit. Few singers balance the euphoric rush of hedonism with the terrifying anguish of coming back down quite like 25-year-old Abel Tesfaye, better known as Canadian R&B dynamo the Weeknd, the breakout pop star of 2015.

The Weeknd, who brings his hotly anticipated tour to Tampa's Amalie Arena on Thursday, has become music's biggest Rorshach test, and not just for that amorphous inkblot of a hairdo. We see in Tesfaye whatever we want to see — and what we see says a lot about what we want our pop stars to be.

When you look at the Weeknd, do you see the fuzzy, frizzy Michael Jackson acolyte behind inescapable disco-pop jam Can't Feel My Face? Or do you see the brooding, sexually domineering satyr behind the deliberately abrasive (and also somehow inescapable) smash The Hills?

Do you see an eager party-starter who's waded into kid-friendly waters by duetting with Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift? Or do you see a cocky and defensive narcissist who, in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, casually accused Swift of invading his space in a kinda-sorta culturally insensitive way? ("The whole time she was talking, she was kind of, like, petting my hair?")

Do you see Tesfaye's seven Grammy nominations, or the lawsuit accusing him of jacking someone else's beat for The Hills? Do you see a pinup performing for screaming tweens at Jingle Balls across America, or a devious self-marketer who's emblazoned his name on condoms and vaporizers? Do you hear lovelorn lyrics like Earned It's "I'mma care for you, 'cause girl, you're perfect, you're always worth it, and you deserve it?" Or do you hear him "singin' 'bout poppin' pills, f---ing b----es" in the profanely autobiographical Tell Your Friends?

This sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde duality has a long history in R&B music. Marvin Gaye and James Brown endured violent and drugged-up personal lives. Being a fan of R. Kelly or Chris Brown requires you to check all kinds of moral baggage at the door. And then there's Jackson, Tesfaye's lifelong idol, who's in a category of darkness all his own.

It's hard to know how good or bad a guy the Weeknd really is — and for years, that's exactly how he liked it. Since brashly crashing the world of hipster R&B in 2011 with a trio of intoxicating, independently produced mixtapes — later collected on 2012's Trilogy — he has often acted like he didn't want the world watching. He avoided interviews, press photos, TV appearances, even major festival gigs. He was an incendiary live performer — anyone who saw his sizzling Straz Center set in 2013 won't forget it — but somehow no one knew it.

Hit by hit, his identity — and, more importantly, his ambition — came into focus. He worked with Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, who'd penned hits for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. He featured on Grande's Love Me Harder, his first Top 10 hit. He performed on Saturday Night Live. He placed a song, Earned It, on the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Gray, a move that might win him an Oscar for Best Original Song. These are not moves you make when you want the world to look away.

All of it worked like a charm. Here we are at the end of 2015, and Tesfaye is a certifiable superstar. His Beauty Behind the Madness was Spotify's most-streamed album of the year. In 2016 he'll tour Europe with Rihanna and headline festivals like Hangout in Gulf Shores, Ala. The Weeknd's name is on everyone's lips, and we all know how to say it.

But just in case you don't: It's pronounced "weekend." Like a party that's not stopping anytime soon.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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