By Caroline Klecka
In 2011, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye lived in a Toronto one bedroom apartment with a friend after leaving home virtually empty-handed at the age of 17. Coming from a single parent household where his mother and grandmother helped raise him, he learned a standard of hard work early in his life.
Although his early mixtape “House of Balloons” boasts about constant partying, casual sex, heavy drug use and overall mental health struggles, it was three songs from this carefully crafted record that eventually put him on Candian rapper Drake’s radar in 2010.
In July of 2011, The Weeknd performed his first show at The Mod Club Theatre in Toronto. Although his original stage name referenced his first apartment, he eventually settled on “The Weeknd”, removing the “e” for copyright reasons.
Ten years later, Tesfaye has put together four studio albums, three compilation albums, three mixtapes and one EP, several of which achieved multi-platinum status under Republic and XO Records. His song “Blinding Lights” from his fourth studio album “After Hours” is the longest-running entry in the Hot 100 top five and top ten to date.
What inspired Tesfaye’s highly successful ten years of projects? His early work speaks about his first tumultuous years living alone, which remain a musical influence to him to this day. In more recent years, The Weeknd has been in two public long-term relationships and traveled the world several times for touring. His unique dark pop and R&B-infused style changed the music industry.
For example, “After Hours” follows a distinct storyline of a character struggling with addiction, longing for a certain significant other, and using cocaine and other drugs. In a rare interview with Variety Magazine, Tesfaye speaks about vulnerability in his music. In the same interview, he speaks about drawing inspiration from classic films like “The Mask”.
The Weeknd’s commitment to visual arts (such as his classic bandaged face and red suit outfit he’s worn multiple times to promote his most recent album persona) and his fourth studio album has made him one of the most notable artists of 2020. But a career marked by raw honesty in his music, dark and alluring themes and 80s disco synth beats are what earned him the Super Bowl Stage.
Prior to his performance, the XO team released an 18-track collection album titled “The Highlights”. Although this has not been confirmed as the Super Bowl setlist to date, it includes many of his greatest hits that will likely be included in the performance.
From “Trilogy” to “After Hours”, here is a track by track explanation of The Weeknd’s greatest hits. Tesfaye’s music can loosely fall into four categories: songs about sex, songs about drug use/hollywood, songs about addiction/relapse and songs about ex-partners.
“Trilogy” (2012): “The Morning”, “Wicked Games”
Although the tracks chosen from “Trilogy” don’t include two of his three first ever songs (“What You Need”, “Loft Music”, “The Morning”) and popular track “High For This”, these early tracks were some of the first to showcase Tesfaye’s detailed music about debauchery.
“The Morning”: Three part album “Trilogy” follows a storyline. “The Morning” is a slower song that details a morning after heavy drinking and drug use. The girls in the song are leaving his place “quarter to dawn”, their high is ending. He sings about money being “the motive” for him when making music.
“Wicked Games”: “Wicked Games” shares a similar gloomy theme. The Weeknd pleads for his girl to give him confidence and tell him that she loves him, even though they both know she doesn’t. Not only does he plead in this song, he is truly desperate: he is cheating on his girl back home and spent all his money on the girl in the song.
“Beauty Behind The Madness” (2015): “Often”, “The Hills”, “Can’t Feel My Face”, “Acquainted”, “Earned It”
In “Beauty Behind the Madness”, Tesfaye fully embraces themes of sex and drug use. Missing from this track list is “In the Night”, which spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and features Tesfaye’s Bella Hadid in the music video. Slow and sensual “Earned It” was featured in “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
“Often”: “Often” is relatively self-explanatory. It samples Turkish singer Nükhet Duru’s song, “Ben Sana Vurgunum”, which features a Turkish poem by poet Sabahattin Ali at the beginning and end to allude to the Weeknd’s loneliness. Translated to English, the poem reads “Each day goes on for years, I’m tired of going alone”. He then repeatedly details his sexual experience.
“The Hills”: “The Hills” is about another sexual encounter. However, the song is more in-depth because the bridge speaks about the reality of life in the spotlight. “The hills have eyes” lyric alludes to the public and paparazzi perceiving his every actions.
“The Hills’ also features an outro in Amharic, a language native to Ethiopia. Tesfaye has stated that he speaks Amharic fluently and it was the first language he ever learned from his mother and grandmother.
“Can’t Feel My Face”: “Can’t Feel My Face” is primarily about cocaine. In “Reminder”, a separate song from The Weeknd’s “Starboy”, he speaks about the irony of being nominated for a Kid’s Choice Award for a song that personifies drug use.
“Acquainted”: “Acquainted” is a classic Weeknd single. It’s a testament to casual sex. He denies catching feelings for his girl but sings about the impact she has on him, which goes deeper than sex. However, the chorus tries to reinforce how they must remain “acquainted” at most.
“Starboy” (2016): “Starboy”, “I Feel it Coming”, “Die For You”
“Starboy” signified a change in The Weeknd’s sound and the utilization of different themes lyrically. It marked a new milestone of stardom, utilizing electronic duo Daft Punk and producers like Diplo, Benny Blanco, Labrinth and favorite Metro Boomin. Overall, the album embraces Tesfaye’s success from his three prior albums.
“Starboy ft. Daft Punk”: The first and title track of “Starboy” sets the mood for the album with an upbeat tempo behind Tesfaye flexing his wealth. But “Starboy” isn’t just about bragging, it’s a callout to his haters.
This song also marks where top model ex-girlfriend Bella Hadid enters his music, besides her video role in “In the Night”. The Weeknd made news while performing “Starboy” at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2016 with Hadid as a model walking the runway. Although the album had just been released, Hadid and Tesfaye had reportedly broken up before it. A viral clip shows “Tesfaye” singing “Starboy” on stage while ex Bella Hadid walks past.
“I Feel it Coming ft. Daft Punk”: “I Feel it Coming” joins the rank of the 100 most-streamed songs of Spotify with over 1 billion streams on Spotify alone. Although it sounds like he’s just singing about climaxing, the song is primarily about trying to make a relationship work. It reflects a progression in how Tesfaye speaks about relationships in his music.
“Die for You”: “Die For You” is another about the stages of a relationship, specifically working through problems in one. The song is self-explanatory: although him and his partner are struggling, he sees them as perfect and would put his life on the line for them.
“My Dear Melancholy,” (2018): “Call Out My Name”
“My Dear Melancholy,”, a seven track EP made entirely of gloomier tracks, is reminiscent of Tesfaye’s two major relationships.
“Call Out My Name”: “Call Out My Name” is the one song from “The Highlights” list that references his past relationship with Selena Gomez. The “broken place” Tesfaye references likely refers to Gomez’s surgeries related to Lupus. The song is a look into the two’s tumultuous relationship timeline. It criticizes Gomez’s behavior in the relationship.
“After Hours” (2020): “Save Your Tears”, “After Hours”, “In Your Eyes”, “Heartless” “Blinding Lights”
The Weeknd’s newest album may be his best, in record-breaking terms and character development. As mentioned before, this red suit era follows a distinct storyline and includes dramatic visual arts in his music videos and live performances. It shows The Weeknd’s commitment to character and showcases a series of his emotions unlike anything he’s created before.
“Save Your Tears”: “Save Your Tears”, one of The Weeknd’s chart-climbing hit singles, is likely about Hadid. The song references a specific encounter: “I saw you dancing in a crowded room”, he sings. Theories online speculate it’s about an encounter the two had at Catch One Nightclub just ten days after one of their breakups. The phrase “save your tears” suggests that Tesfaye believes he is not worth crying over. “You deserve someone better, save your tears for another day” he sings. It completely contrasts the upbeat nature of the song.
“After Hours”: In this nearly six minute title track, Tesfaye reinforces the theme of his album: the cycle of addiction. Once again, he’s also singing about a girl. He alludes to another common theme in his music: wanting children, not wanting marriage, because he believes sharing a child is more permanent and meaningful. The legendary beat switch signifies the switch into “after hours”, his “darkest hours” filled with regret and desperation for his girl. Fans believe “Different girls on the floor distracting my thoughts of you” could reference his 2016 encounter with Hadid from The Victoria’s Secret Show.
“In Your Eyes”: “In Your Eyes” is a vulnerable track on the album, despite its upbeat use of synth and saxophone. He sings about trying to find love elsewhere, seeing his lovers’ pain, and not wanting to hurt them. It was one of the first music videos released in the “After Hours” era.
“Heartless”: “Heartless” is another switch in the midst of “After Hours”. It’s a complete contrast to the song before it, “Escape from LA”, a slower track about his girl. The viral first line of the song begins a long recount of chaos: “Never need a b*tch I’m what a b*tch needs”. Tesfaye remarks about being “back on his ways” and shouts out producer Metro Boomin. The bridge hints at another identity crisis, which we hear in the next song on the album, “Faith”.
“Blinding Lights”: In quite possibly The Weeknd’s biggest hit from his career thus far, Tesfaye references Las Vegas, one of the settings of the album. It’s a turning point from the darker and serious “Faith”, yet still a dark song lyrics wise despite its use of 80s synth. The “lights” are distractions in his life, that ease the pain of not having his girl. Theories suggest the lights refer to a police car or ambulance, a continued storyline from “Faith”, which ends in the repeated phrase “I ended up, in the back of a flashing car”.
Featured songs: “Love Me Harder by Ariana Grande & The Weeknd”, “Pray for Me with Kendrick Lamar”
Although The Weeknd has released 43 singles himself, his features remain a noteworthy part of his career. The Weeknd’s feature on “Love Me Harder” signifies a friendship and partnership between the two in the industry. The song surpassed 500 million streams on Spotify. “Pray for Me” was featured on the album for “Black Panther”, among singles by SZA, Travis Scott, and Swae Lee.
Tesfaye spent $7 million dollars of his own money to create a “cinematic experience” for the Super Bowl show. Although The Weeknd has kept much of the performance a secret, he’s said to have been inspired by singer and actress Diana Ross.
The Weeknd is sure to dazzle in the biggest performance of his career. Super Bowl LV airs Sunday, Feb. 7.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of S.Camelot’s Flickr account.
Caroline Klecka is a sophomore multiplatform journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.