Abel Tesfaye, known globally as the Weeknd, is making headlines this week as he gets ready to perform at the 2015 VMAs and releases a new album. Despite these mainstream milestones, the Weeknd got his start in a pretty unorthodox way — his origin story is filled with mystery, mixtapes, and a megaton of internet hype.
So how exactly did the Weeknd manage to climb from the dark hole of indie music anonymity to become the summer’s biggest pop star?
Let’s start at the beginning.
On Feb. 24, 2011, Tesfaye uploaded three songs to YouTube under the username “xoxxxoooxo.”
No identifying name or photos were associated with the account, other than a curiously misspelled band name: “The Weeknd.” Two weeks later, one of the songs, “What You Need,” appeared on notorious indie-music review site Pitchfork as a “Best New Track.”
The single was described as “a twinkling, moonlit R&B protestation all made the more sensual by an anonymous, butter-dripping voice challenging a lover’s relationship with suggestive come-ons.”
The Weeknd was gaining attention. Not just because his voice sounded like a reincarnated Michael Jackson, but because the shroud of mystery clinging to those YouTube videos was captivating. Everyone wanted to know who was behind this new sound. The Pitchfork review told readers: “If you haven’t heard much about the Weeknd, it’s because there isn’t much info out there on them — that is, if the mysterious project …is a ‘them’ and not just a ‘him’ or ‘her.'”
The inscrutability of the Weeknd was a huge part of his draw, and why the internet couldn’t get enough.
Within a month, a full mixtape was released with the title “House of Balloons.”
Popular rapper and fellow Canadian Drake tweeted the download link, only adding to the buzz surrounding the artist. Pitchfork awarded the mixtape Best New Album, with this mini explainer of his explosion into internet fame:
As soon as the creepy R&B tracks from a free mixtape began to circulate, the hype engine revved up. There was the Drake cosign, the album art that looked like Spiritualized crossed with Tumblr art-porn, the missing vowel, the stylish samples, and the project’s creators hiding in the shadows. You can’t buy buzz like this…
Eventually, Abel Tesfaye was uncovered as the man behind the enigma of the Weeknd. Exactly who put it together first is unclear, but Complex ran a mini breakdown of everything fans had discovered about the artist so far on April 7, 2011.
Some fans were shocked to head that the Weeknd was just one person.
Others weren’t satisfied with just the singer’s name — they wanted to know more about his looks.
im really curious to know what Abel Tesfaye looks like now…
— EA (@lizzisfat) April 5, 2011
Then, the Weeknd did his first public performance.
Just five months after his YouTube debut, on July 24 2011, he performed at a small venue called the Mod Club in his hometown of Toronto. One review of the event made it clear that the mystery continued with this appearance.
“The official flyer proclaimed ‘no guest list, no cameras, no media’; tickets could only be purchased in-person at a shoe store downtown a week earlier and sold out immediately,” the review read.
Fans who weren’t quick enough to grab tickets could only hope for leaked video footage of the momentous event.
Critics were loving it as he released two more mixtapes.
That year, “House of Balloons” appeared on many music critic sites as one of the albums of the year. But the artist still refused interviews, nor did he make many other public appearances.
He did, however, sign with a major label and release two more mixtapes, known as “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence.” The Weeknd decided to gather those two with “House of Balloons” and create a three-disc album called “Trilogy.”
The only mar on a year of the Weeknd came when producer Jeremy Rose, who sometimes goes by Zodiac, stated that the Weeknd wasn’t crediting him as the musical genius behind those first breakout tracks. Rose told his side of the story to Vice. The Weeknd has remained silent on the issue to this day.
He then made the leap to a spot at Coachella and a few other high-profile performances and started giving interviews.
In April 2012, the Weeknd performed at the iconically hip Coachella music festivel, which kicked off his first ever US tour. In 2013, the singer was opening for Justin Timberlake, appearing on SNL, and performing live on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
When marketing began for the Weeknd’s first official full-length album “Kiss Land” in fall 2013, he finally sat down with Complex Magazine to discuss his enigmatic past. When asked if his “air of mystery” was intentional, the Weeknd replied:
Yes and no. In the beginning, I was very insecure. I hated how I looked in pictures … I was very camera shy. People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend … I just ran with it. No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain sh*t. But you can’t escape the Internet.
He was right.
His early 2015 single “Earned It” boosted him to mainstream fame.
Released officially on Feb. 15, 2015, “Earned It” became synonymous with erotic-novel-turned-movie “50 Shades of Grey.”
As the Weeknd ventured farther into the spotlight, his music became more about sex and love while references to drugs became fewer.
But the Weeknd still maintains an edgy darkness to his R&B style. In a recent interview with Time Magazine, the Weeknd reflects on how much has changed in pop music since those early mixtape days:
“I think the [pop music] game is changing with songs like ‘Earned It’ as opposed to it changing me because ‘Earned It’ was very important,” he said. “It was slow, it was sexy and it was smooth — all traits in my music.”
The Weeknd is aiming to “make pop cool again,” and it seems as though he’s succeeding. His YouTube channel is still under the same “xoxxxoooxo” username, but the uploaded clips are filled with shots of the Weeknd singing, on tour, or wandering around L.A. The Weeknd also has a dedicated Vevo page for his music videos, which always feature the now-recognisable artist front and center in every narrative.
And now, he’s released a second album as he preps for a VMA performance.
Tickets have already gone on sale for the Weeknd’s fall 2015 tour, titled “The Madness” after his brand new album, According to Forbes, scalpers wasted no time: the average price for secondary market tickets is $US204.75. Clearly, it will only go up from here for the R&B singer. Fans who can’t catch him live are eagerly awaiting the MTV Video Music Award performance he’s scheduled to make on Sunday, August 30.
No matter how dark he tries to stay, the Weeknd is one of the brightest pop stars of 2015.
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