The Weeknd: Essentials

A guide to the songs that shaped the Toronto R&B star's career.

A guide to the songs that shaped the Toronto R&B star's career

'Tryna be a better man, but I'm heartless/ never be a weddin' plan for the heartless/ low life for life 'cause I'm heartless.' (Nabil Elderkin)

This article was originally published on November 25, 2016.

Ever since Drake co-signed the singer's House of Balloons mixtape via social media back in 2011, the Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye), has leveraged his notoriety from two subsequent critically accliamed mixtapes — all three releases resulting in the Balloons Trilogy — into mainstream success.

Tesfaye's moody, disorienting and dark take on R&B helped him carve out a distinctive niche within the genre, and he's used that persona to successfully infiltrate pop music. Since then, the singer has picked up Grammys, an Oscar nomination and swept the 2016 Junos, snagging five awards.

With the arrival of his fourth studio album, After Hours (out March 20), we decided to take stock of some of the essential songs that set the Weeknd on the path to success.

Editor's note: strong language warning for all songs.

Song: "High for This"
Album: House of Balloons (2011)

It's no surprise that this song was featured in the promo for the last season of HBO's Entourage. "High For This" takes you into the world of lush after-parties and sexual encounters through suggestive lyrics and echoing vocals. The pulsing beat and ringing reverb create a sense of foreboding as the Weeknd sings, "Don't be scared. I'm right here." There is no better way to open your debut mixtape than with a large dose of suspense. After a night of heavy partying, wind down with this.

— Olivia Pasquarelli (@oliviapasq)

Song: "The Morning"
Album: House of Balloons (2011)

Abel Tesfaye's music thrives in the night, deeply seeped in long hours of debauchery, but "The Morning" is a sobering contrast to that. Crawling out of a night where walls were "kicking like they six months pregnant," Tesfaye is hit with a rare moment of reflection. It's a clarity that's simply framed with a single, sprawling guitar part and a faded thump like a remnant of last night's bender, all building up a bursting chorus. There's no doubt that Tesfaye can go big on his songs, but sometimes the quieter moments, such as this gem from his debut, House of Balloons, can also speak volumes.

— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)

Song: "Wicked Games"
Album: House of Balloons (2011)

The only charting single from the Trilogy era, "Wicked Games" remains the zenith of the Weeknd's minimalist R&Bmo prime. Over a looping chord progression, Tesfaye croons about addiction and self-loathing like it's an object of exquisite desire. Contrasting the overt sexuality of its Chris Isaak namesake, "Wicked Games" offers its slowjam goods with a dose of stark reality — nothing glossed over, its beauty discovered in emotional scars.

— Jonathan Dekel (@jondekel)

Song: "Crew Love"
Album: Take Care by Drake (2011)

The Weeknd and Drake will forever be grouped together in this city's consciousness, Aubrey Graham's famous co-sign of Tesfaye launching the latter onto the international stage. Before the Weeknd broke out and got his own record deal for his XO brand, however, he was part of Drake's OVO songwriting crew, leaving his mark on five songs off Drake's magnum opus, Take Care. "Crew Love" was the best of those co-writes, and if there was any mistaking that the Weeknd was the next big thing out of Toronto, this solidified it. At a time when everyone wanted a little piece of their celebrity, "Crew Love" was an isolationist ode to the importance of your crew, back when Drake and the Weeknd were still a crew ("That OVO and XO is everything you believe in.") Lush and brooding production with just the right amount of empty space for the Weeknd's vocals to soar, it was part anthem, part affirmation. As the Weeknd sings, "Got my whole crew blowing like a C-4."

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

Song: "Earned It"
Album: Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack (2015); Beauty Behind the Madness ( 2015)

The best thing about the movie Fifty Shades of Grey was probably this song. I will admit I never saw that movie (or read the book) so I am just assuming, but it was included in the movie twice so that's saying something. It's infectious and sexy, the stuff of downtempo dreams and with a sonic quality of a flawless diamond. "Earned It" is one of those songs that makes you feel luxurious; like you are the drop-dead handsome man in expensive tailored suits and the woman with the sex appeal of a pin-up. When Tesfaye sat down to write this tune he was able to channel the cold, dark seduction of the story's plot, but he didn't have to look too far outside his wheelhouse for inspiration. He epitomises that sound. Radio played this song to death, but when it does come on, I still turn it up.

— Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe (@MissAngelineTW)

Song: "The Hills"
Album: Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)

The first single that Tesfaye released after "Earned It," "The Hills" felt like one big middle finger to the mainstream success of that 2014 blockbuster. Dipping back into his nearly trademark misogynistic lyrics, Tesfaye's discordant, hypnotic slow jam borrows its hook from Wes Craven's 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes, and uncharacteristically ends with the voice of a woman, singing sweetly in Amharic, a language from Tesfaye's parents' native Ethiopia.

Eschewing the mainstream Fifty moms for what Tesfaye built his name on paid off: the song reached No. 1 in Canada and the Billboard Hot 100, while "Earned It" only reached the No. 3 spot on the latter chart. Listening to the first few cuts on Starboy this past month, it sounds like Tesfaye may be headed for less literal territory than "I only f--k you when it's half past five … I just f---ked two bitches 'fore I saw you." Who can blame him, if Fifty Shades did earn him a Grammy? While addicted to the musicality of "The Hills," in 2016 I'll take subliminal songs about orgasms ("I Feel it Coming") over flippant disregard for women as human beings.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)

Song: "Can't Feel My Face"
Album: Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)

While the Weeknd had been gradually shedding the darker elements of his persona, "Can't Feel My Face" — despite its thinly veiled reference to drugs — is the moment he fully embraced his dalliances with pop. With one of his chief influences, Michael Jackson, as his guide, Tesfaye takes a song written by Max Martin's hit factory and ensures it his inimitably his own. Given the distinctive sonic blueprint Martin has imposed on hit records over the past few years — ones that could have featured interchangeable singers — this is a notable feat.

— Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

Song: "I Feel it Coming"
Album: Starboy (2016)

One of two Daft Punk collaborations on the Weeknd's third studio album, Starboy, "I Feel it Coming" further expands on Tesfaye's pop ambitions. Fully shedding the murky midnight vibe of his earlier releases, this track embraces a softer, more vulnerable side of Tesfaye as he admits to wanting more from a relationship. As Tesfaye continues to evolve, sonically, he will hold on to two opposite perspectives on love: a one-night-stand indifference and a yearning for more connection. — ML


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