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The Weeknd is the alias of alternative R&B enigma-turned-pop star Abel Tesfaye, whose aching accounts of emotionally and physically toxic indulgences have translated to multi-platinum sales and Grammy recognition. The singer and songwriter arrived in 2011 with three mixtapes offering morose ballads that seemed to have no designs on mainstream appeal. Within only a few years, however, Tesfaye had scored a variety of Top Ten pop hits. These included a duet with Ariana Grande ("Love Me Harder"), a dramatic ballad from the soundtrack of Fifty Shades of Grey (the Grammy-winning "Earned It"), a retro-contemporary disco-funk collaboration with Max Martin ("I Can't Feel My Face"), and a sleek Daft Punk production ("Starboy"). Additionally, Tesfaye topped the Billboard 200 with his second and third proper full-lengths, Beauty Behind the Madness (2015) and Starboy (2016), which also made him a two-time winner of the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Tesfaye entered the next decade with another chart-topper, After Hours, and played the Super Bowl half-time show in early 2021.
Born in Toronto to Ethiopian immigrants, Abel Tesfaye debuted the Weeknd in late 2010 with three songs uploaded to YouTube. Made with producer Jeremy Rose, they served as a low-key prelude to three mixtapes self-released as free digital downloads the following year. The first one was House of Balloons (March), where clear traces of radio-friendly contemporary R&B à la Trey Songz, Jeremih, the-Dream, and Drake were synthesized with the progressive left-of-center likes of Spacek and Sa-Ra. Recorded in collaboration with producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo, among others, the set garnered widespread coverage within days of its release. A similar second mixtape, Thursday (August), preceded several appearances on Drake's album Take Care. Featuring a cover of Michael Jackson's "Dirty Diana," Echoes of Silence (December) completed the trilogy just before the end of the year. The following June, "Crew Love," off Take Care, reached the Top Ten of Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. A few months later, Tesfaye was featured on another charting single, Wiz Khalifa's "Remember You."
After Tesfaye signed with Universal Republic, the three Weeknd mixtapes were remastered and bundled with three new songs for Trilogy, issued in November 2012. Despite consisting of material previously available for free, the set debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 chart. The following April, Tesfaye won Juno Awards in the categories of Breakthrough Artist of the Year and R&B/Soul Recording of the Year. Trilogy was certified platinum by the RIAA the next month. Kiss Land, much darker in tone than its title implied, followed in September 2013 and debuted at number two. Only "Live For," featuring Drake, touched the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Tesfaye had much more success with a series of non-album singles in 2014. "Often" was a Top Ten R&B/Hip-Hop hit. He was then featured on Ariana Grande's "Love Me Harder," which reached the Top Ten of the Hot 100 and went platinum in the U.S. "Earned It," featured in Fifty Shades of Grey, repeated the same feats.
In 2015, Tesfaye issued "The Hills," a booming, nightmarish ballad co-produced by Illangelo, and "Can't Feel My Face," an upbeat Max Martin collaboration, as the first two singles from Beauty Behind the Madness. Both songs topped the Hot 100. The album was issued that August and debuted at the same position. At the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, it won in the category of Best Urban Contemporary Album, while "Earned It" received the nod for Best R&B Performance. Through the end of 2015 and into 2016, Tesfaye was featured on Disclosure's "In the Night," Kanye West's "FML," Future's "Low Life," and Beyoncé's "6 Inch." "Starboy," produced by Daft Punk, was released in September 2016 as the lead single from Tesfaye's album of the same title. It became the singer's fifth Top Ten pop single before the November arrival of Starboy, which landed on top of the Billboard 200. The album's success was sustained with the second single, its other Daft Punk production, "I Feel It Coming."
Appearances on singles by Nav, Lana Del Rey, and French Montana were scattered through 2017. The following year saw Tesfaye appear on the track "Pray for Me," with Kendrick Lamar -- one of the lead singles from the official soundtrack for Marvel's Black Panther. In March 2018, he issued a surprise EP titled My Dear Melancholy,. The release flashed back to the darker aesthetic of Trilogy and crowned the Billboard 200, propelled by the Top Ten single "Call Out My Name." Toward the end of 2019, after a handful of intermediary collaborations and soundtrack contributions, Tesfaye issued the first two singles off his fourth proper album. "Heartless," co-produced by Illangelo and Metro Boomin, topped the Hot 100, and "Blinding Lights," another Max Martin collaboration, went Top Ten before After Hours arrived in March 2020. The heartache-filled set, which also featured a handful of collaborations with Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), became Tesfaye's fourth straight number one release on the U.S. and Canadian album charts. "Blinding Lights" eventually reached the top spot on the Hot 100 and was soon his biggest single on a global scale, topping the pop charts in Canada, the U.K., Australia, and several European territories. The following February, Tesfaye performed at Super Bowl LV, which coincided with the release of a career-spanning overview entitled The Highlights. The compilation topped the Billboard 200 and was followed later in the year by the standalone single "Take My Breath." Tesfaye also appeared alongside rapper Nas on Belly's 2021 album See You Next Wednesday. ~ Andy Kellman
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