In a world where social media makes us more prone to spontaneous outbursts than ever, Abel Tesfaye remains cautious about what to disclose, and when. It’s been this way since the outset of his career, when speculation ran rampant about whether The Weeknd was a pseudonym or a collective of artists. As a result, the reports of early public sightings that followed came with proclamations such as “mysterious R&B singer sells out first show” while his live debut at Toronto’s The Mod Club mandated that “no guestlist, no cameras” and no media would be permitted. The groundswell of love that met House Of Balloons’ arrival in 2011 made remaining anonymous an exercise in futility, but that doesn’t mean Abel is any more enamoured with sharing his day-to-day life than he was back then.
Dormant for long periods of time, The Weeknd’s Twitter account only springs into life when there’s something to promote or an obtuse remark that stokes fan speculation, and it’s a tactic that’s proved very effective over the years. Consequently, the declaration that he is in “album mode” sent his fleet of admirers into a frenzy. Though some would claim that his more recent material lost that sultry, off-piste quality that made him so refreshing in the first place, there’s no denying that The Weeknd is an artist that still has complete self-governance over his brand and imaging. Where most artists gradually renege on their own direction in favour of kneeling at the altar of corporatism, Abel’s 20/20 foresight has meant that he’s stringently stuck to his own lane since the very beginning.
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Billed under “xoxxxoooxo,” the YouTube channel that started it all with the unheralded release of “What You Need” has now amassed over 8 billion views and serves as a living monument to the benefits of sticking to your guns. By allowing the sumptuous material to do the talking, The Weeknd’s evasiveness made for some of the most subtle targeted marketing that we’ve ever seen in music. “I hated how I looked in pictures”, he told Complex Magazine in 2013, “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.”
Spurred on by the response that his early, boundary-pushing output was invoking, it wasn’t long until hip-hop’s ruling class came knocking. After the world’s most famous Torontonian shared the link to House Of Balloons on Twitter, Abel would enter into a tentative working relationship with Drake that would directly sculpt the sound of the 6 God’s sophomore project Take Care. Credited on no less than five tracks, Tesfaye’s watchful eye on his own brand and output told him when it was time to relinquish the coattails and head out on his own again.
"I gave up almost half of my album. It’s hard. I will always be thankful — if it wasn’t for the light, he shone on me, who knows where I’d be. And everything happens for a reason," Tesfaye told Rolling Stone. "You never know what I would say if this success wasn’t in front of me now."
Unwilling to play second fiddle, his decision to flee the OVO camp and keep his own counsel speaks to the cavernous divide in star power and growth that’s opened up between himself and their resident crooner PARTYNEXTDOOR. Plus, by 2016, Abel had narrowly unseated Drake’s reign at the top by amassing the most monthly listeners of any artist on Spotify with a staggering 36.06 million.
On the subject of the tumultuous world of streaming services, the decision to forge ahead under his own XO umbrella— which also houses artists such as Belly, Black Atlass and Nav— paid off in spades when Apple Music’s purse strings became available to him. Known for their receptiveness towards artists who favour a more abstract approach, the media giant threw their weight behind The Weeknd during the Beauty Behind The Madness era and even crafted a series of bespoke ads that prominently featured him. By way of a rationale, Apple Music’s Head Of Content Larry Jackson lifted the lid on what makes him such a valuable commodity to Fast Company.
"The fact that his marketing had mystique made an impact with me because it’s a lost art that I have such immense respect for," said Jackson at the time. "Overexposure is at an all-time high, and everyone gives everything away. The fact that he employed a tactic and approach that’s counterintuitive to most was the draw for me. I was a fan from day one."
Whether you’re a high-powered exec or an avid music listener, gaining and retaining the attention span of his day-ones has granted Abel the ability to broker fashion deals with H&M and Puma alongside wading into the world of vaping with Pax Labs. But above all else, it’s given him supreme confidence and an acute awareness of his own influence over the music world.
Amid a 2015 interview with Time Magazine, Abel shook off his previous insecurities in order to quantify his own effect on the industry.
"I think the game is changing with songs like ‘Earned It’ as opposed to it changing me because ‘Earned It’ was very important," he remarked. "It was slow, it was sexy and it was smooth— all traits in my music. ‘Earned It’ made people believe that I was my own hit maker, and we’re seeing that again now with 'The Hills.'"
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He has a point. In the years since Trilogy first breached the pop membrane, displaying shades of The Weeknd has become a byword for quality in contemporary music. Recruited for features by everyone from Future and Rae Sremmurd to Gesaffelstein and Cashmere Cat, he’s also undertaken co-writing duties for Halsey and Beyonce and even ingratiated his music into the classic soul canon by loaning “Earned It” to The Temptations for their 2018 album All The Time . Rather than keeping his compositions under lock-and-key on their original projects, The Weeknd’s material has taken on a life that extends far beyond his murky world and have been interpolated, sampled or covered on many occasions. French Montana retooled The Weeknd’s greatest lust song “Wicked Games” on two separate occasions with 2012’s “Sanctuary” and the Swae Lee-aided “Unforgettable” while southern hip-hop institution Juicy J also demonstrated a proclivity for using Abel’s work as a basis for new material on “Know Betta” and “Lucky Charm.” WhoSampled tallies over 240 samples or covers.
For Abel, worldwide acclaim has done little to deter him from implementing whatever he feels is best. To summarize his point-blank refusal to heed anyone else’s two cents, look no further than the thought process that governed his decision to cut off his iconic, Basquiat-inspired locks. After re-emerging with a cropped new look for the Starboy era, he told Billboard, "I told everybody I was getting rid of it, and everybody -- literally, unanimously -- they were like, 'No, don't do it! That's your whole thing, that's you.' And the way they said that, I was like, 'Oh, I'm definitely cutting it now.'"
No matter whether it’s his music, appearance or art direction, The Weeknd has the temerity to enact his own plans and it is exactly what earned him a whopping $92 million in 2017. Occasionally levelled with the distinction of the “next Michael Jackson,” derivations aren’t required when you’re the first Abel Testafye.