Max Martin: a songwriter who has done more than anyone else to shape the sound of pop music over the past 25 years – Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, the full list might as well be endless. Oneohtrix Point Never: an avant-garde electronic producer who cut his teeth in the noise community but is fascinated by cliché and the hypnagogic effect of bland, effortlessly familiar music. The Weeknd: Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, previously a rather frustrating R&B star, now the willing conduit for a new form of post-modernism where every note and lyric is sincere and insincere in equal measure, and Jim Carrey's soothing voice reverberates off the walls of what looks suspiciously like a suicide booth.
It's rare to be able to acknowledge the presence of an all-time great while they're still in their prime, but when an artist has made it as apparent as the Weeknd has, it becomes impossible to ignore. Toronto-born Abel Tesfaye has undoubtedly become one of the biggest names in music today, essentially living at the top of the charts since 2014. Impressively, he has maintained that position without ever allowing the success of one record to dictate the sound of the next.
On the cover of Dawn FM, the fifth studio album by The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye), we see the 31-year-old pop star depicted as a cryptically aged relic complete with silver strands, wrinkles, liver spots, and a bewildered look of despair. The world is in its third year of a debilitating pandemic with no perceived end in sight. Tesfaye's latest transformation is symbolic of this; coronavirus in all of its variations has made the passing of time obsolete.
We might have noticed that there was something universally, perversely relatable about the Weeknd's music when songs from his 2015 album appeared on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack and were nominated for a Kids' Choice Award. To think that Abel Tesfaye--who rose to fame somewhat anonymously with sweaty mixtures about Alizé for breakfast and pills that burned his brain--would one day go on to play the Super Bowl would have felt bizarre to even his fans. But after a long album rollout for 2020's After Hours wherein the singer had his face made up with bruises, blood, and bandages, there he was on the most-watched telecast of 2021--92 million people tuning in--looking like a quarter-billion bucks.
It would seem that in these confusing times, Abel Tesfaye has been cruelly relegated to being only the second most ubiquitous thing on planet Earth. But ubiquity he has achieved, to a frankly staggering degree for an artist whose music tends to be so, well, debauched. Since teaming up with pop King-Maker Max Martin in 2015, The Weeknd 's last two albums have been certified 3x and 2x platinum; he performed the Super Bowl half-time show; has appeared on lead singles from Kanye West, Rosália and FKA Twigs; and his 2019 single "Blinding Lights" went so viral that it started to feel like an actual infection.
The Weeknd is far removed from the faceless enigma that the world met at the beginning of his career. His introduction as a dark, seductive R&B voice resonated immediately in the early 2010s, soundtracking taboo late-night exploits and countless degenerate rendezvous with standout tracks from Trilogy ("Wicked Games") and Beauty Behind the Madness ("The Hills"). The moral murkiness of his lyrics, combined with enthralling production that blurred lines between pop and R&B, turned songs such as "Losers" and "House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls" into generational anthems, leading fans deep into an era of darkness and promiscuity.
It turns out Abel Tesfaye wasn't done with his latest era. 'After Hours' (2020) propelled 80s revivalism forward, introducing a glossier sound and a more narratively-driven style to his project, The Weeknd. After mind-boggling critical and commercial success that most artists dream of, The Weeknd has delivered 'Dawn FM' (2022), the purgatorial sequel to 'After Hours'.