IN JUST OVER A YEAR, the Weeknd has released three critically acclaimed mixtapes on his website. For free. He frequently collaborates with Drake. Nobody knows much else about the Weeknd, except that his name is Abel Tesfaye, he's from Toronto, and though he's only 22, he's a pretty convincing nihilist.
Tesfaye is intensely private and doesn't talk to journalists, so the rest is open to speculation: Is he singing about his own dark side or other people's? Are his songs about his own experiences, or is he a storyteller who makes depraved things sound beautiful? Does he hate himself—or everyone else?
Unless you pay attention to Tesfaye's lyrics, the gruesome consistency of his songs may take awhile to sink in. For the first few listens, you'll be too wrapped up in his silky-smooth choruses and backing grooves that range from somber and lush to sparse and menacing. The aesthetic harkens back to the R&B of the early '90s, but with a sophisticated production that incorporates post-punk and industrial influences into the slow jams. His choirboy voice soars above it all.
Then you realize this choirboy is singing about some filthy, filthy things.
Even before James Brown, fucking has been central to R&B. Almost without exception, the ladies (and the coke and the cognac) are presented in a braggy self-aggrandizing way that is sometimes sexy, sometimes funny, and mostly hard to take very seriously.
Tesfaye also sings about sex, but in a way that might be better characterized as self-immolating. On his best and most recent mixtape, Echoes of Silence, Tesfaye chronicles a world populated by sociopathic pimps who prey on the weak and vulnerable. There is nothing glamorous or charming about this dark underbelly. On "Initiation," he details at length a kidnapping that ends in a gang rape.
The Weeknd has some shit to work out—or, maybe, that's just what he wants us to think.
Granted, it's easy to be suspicious about a critically beloved, not unattractive, young R&B star going out of his way to avoid any form of notoriety other than what he writes in his songs. Is this guy for real? Is he really a tortured recluse? Or, perhaps, no publicity just became the best new PR strategy.