All hail the new king of pop

A 10-year timeline of the Weeknd's rise, from Juno breakthrough artist to global superstar.

An R&B lothario. A record-breaking hitmaker. The new king of pop. These are just a few ways to sum up the Weeknd’s incredible and steady rise from emerging Toronto songwriter to one of the most recognizable pop stars in the world.

It’s been 10 years since the Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, won the Juno Award for breakthrough artist of the year, signalling the beginning of his now historic ascent to certified superstardom. In the last decade, the Weeknd evolved from a shadowy figure into one of the world’s most-streamed artists, while winning (and boycotting) Grammys, selling out arenas and forever changing the landscape of pop and R&B along the way.

But before that prophetic year, he was already building a fanbase. Born and raised in Scarborough, the singer dropped out of high school and experienced a period of homelessness, which led to a hazy patch of partying and drug experimentation. He began anonymously releasing steamy, narcotic-fuelled tracks and was working at American Apparel when his coworker played his song “What You Need,” unaware that Tesfaye was the man behind the music.

The Weeknds awards

Tesfaye continued anonymously uploading his sultry songs to YouTube, solidifying his enigma status, and in December 2010 he nabbed a co-sign from Drake. By 2011, he’d founded his label, XO, to release three mixtapes in the span of a year — House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence — and made his live debut with a packed concert at Toronto’s Mod Club.

Two years later, his efforts led to winning that breakthrough artist title, which started his journey to become a Junos heavyweight. The Weeknd is currently the second most-awarded act in Junos history, with 22 trophies, after the success of his album Dawn FM at the 2023 Juno Awards.

But how did the Weeknd go from breakthrough artist to global superstar? CBC Music’s editorial team decided to take a year-by-year closeup on the Weeknd’s last decade, following his trajectory through each electrifying era that helped make him one of the world’s most popular artists.


An illustration of the Weeknd with a beard, smiling while holding a microphone in front of black and white balloons.

By Natalie Harmsen

After steadily building hype for years, the Weeknd officially emerged from anonymity in 2013 by giving his very first interview. Discussing Kiss Land, his debut album that dropped that fall, he explained to Complex that the horror-influenced album was about “honest fear.” “I’m all about surprises,” he revealed, something that proved to be true with each slow song.

He was only 23 when the album was released and it garnered decent reviews, a sign that the Weeknd’s erotic, drug-addled aesthetic was sparking a pivotal shift in the sound of contemporary R&B. “I went from staring at the same four walls for 21 years/ to seeing the whole world in just 12 months,” he surmised on the final track, about his atmospheric rise.

His road to stardom was solidified with his very first wins at the 2013 Junos, joining a list of past breakthrough artist winners that includes Avril Lavigne and Drake.


An illustration of the Weeknd with locs and facial hair looking pensive in front of bright green Japanese symbols.

By Melody Lau

While the Weeknd’s music leading up to this year was perhaps too explicit for mainstream audiences, 2014 marked a turn for the rising star. Breaking out of his usual group of collaborators (producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney, plus his original co-signer, Drake), the Weeknd first released a remix of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” — although his take on the hit still centered heavily on sex and drugs — and then he teamed up with Ariana Grande on the first of several singles together: “Love me Harder,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

But the Weeknd’s biggest entry into the mainstream came in the form of “Earned It,” a song written for the 2015 movie Fifty Shades of Grey. On a soundtrack that featured heavy-hitters including Beyoncé, Sia and Ellie Goulding, the Weeknd’s song stood out as one of the compilation’s most successful releases. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Republic Records executive vice president Tom Mackay praised the Weeknd, saying, “Our A&R staff brought him in very, very early and he worked on a number of songs for a number of scenes. Some were working and some weren’t, but he just kept at it, and kept at it. In the end, he wrote ‘Earned It’ and it’s the biggest song of his career to date.”

“Earned It” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, nabbed the Weeknd an Academy Award nomination for best original song, scored a Grammy win for best R&B performance, and proved that Tesfaye could be a hit-maker. (Meanwhile, Kiss Land was nominated for R&B/soul recording of the year at the Junos, but lost to Jrdn and Kardinal Offishall’s “Can’t Choose.”)


A black and white illustration of the Weeknd from the cover of 'Beauty Behind the Madness' with a torn paper/collage effect.

By Kelsey Adams

In every pop star’s career there’s a crossover moment, where they shift from the next big thing to a household name. Tesfaye’s second album, Beauty Behind the Madness, was that catalyst, making 2015 the year the Weeknd became inescapable. The early success of the album’s first single, “Often,” earned the Weeknd two Junos, for R&B/soul recording of the year and artist of the year.

The second single, the aforementioned “Earned It,” catapulted him onto the airways of dozens of countries (and into the bedrooms of millions). It’s now sitting at more than one billion streams on Spotify — and it’s not the only track from Beauty Behind the Madness to hit that milestone.

The rampant popularity of “Earned It” laid the groundwork for the ubiquity of the album’s third single, “Can’t Feel my Face.” From daycares to office buildings, nightclubs to grocery stores, this song was everywhere after it dropped in June. The groovy bassline, the ’80s funk production and the Weeknd’s vibrant falsetto garnered him comparisons to Michael Jackson at the peak of his popularity. It’s truly a flawless song, thanks to an assist from Swedish pop super producer Max Martin and the Weeknd’s glorious vocal performance.

“Can’t Feel my Face” was the Weeknd’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, and it hit No. 1 in more than 10 countries including Canada, the U.S., Mexico, South Africa and Denmark. Rolling Stone called it the best song of 2015 — not bad for a song full of allusions to his wilful love affair with cocaine.


 An illustration of the Weeknd with short hair singing into a microphone in front of a red background.

By Natalie Harmsen

2016 was a banner year filled with trophies, and one when the Weeknd reaped the rewards of Beauty Behind the Madness’s mainstream success. He kicked off the year by winning his first-ever Grammy in February, scoring two golden gramophones from seven nominations.

He later cleaned up at the Junos in April, winning five trophies in many of the major categories: album of the year and R&B/soul recording of the year for Beauty Behind the Madness; songwriter of the year, artist of the year and single of the year for “Can’t Feel my Face.” He also performed a high-energy medley of “Acquainted” and “Might Not,” bringing out his XO signee Belly.

To close out the year with a bang, he dropped his third album, Starboy. If Beauty Behind the Madness was his way of circling the pop sphere, then Starboy proved the Weeknd was happy to stay — he blended his R&B sound with electropop and disco to create polished, dancefloor-ready bangers.

Starboy was indicative of a complete metamorphosis: the Weeknd suffocated his old, long-haired self in the music video for the title track, signalling his embrace of fame’s sheen.


An orange and black illustration of the Weeknd with short hair, singing into a microphone.

By Natalie Harmsen

At the 2017 Junos, Starboy won R&B/soul recording of the year, and almost exactly a year later, the Weeknd dropped his first EP, My Dear Melancholy.

“It was just like this cathartic piece of art,” the Weeknd told Esquire of the release. The heartbreak-driven tracks were written, recorded and released in only two-and-a-half weeks. Leaning into the familiar and haunting sounds of his early work, the Weeknd created an EP brimming with despair, and one that served as a dark juxtaposition to the synth-filled neon haze of Starboy.

In June 2018, the Weeknd also launched his first radio show, Memento Mori (Latin for “remember you must die”), to share the songs that were inspiring him.

During this period, the Weeknd spent much of his time touring and embracing the fashion world.

The Weeknd wears a black beanie and a green camo jacket while shaking hands with a fan in a blue camo jacket.
The Weeknd releases the collaborative Puma x XO collection and attends a pop-up shop event to meet fans.
The Weeknd on stage at awards between Daft Punk wearing their masks.
Daft Punk and the Weeknd perform ‘I Feel it Coming’ together at the 2017 Grammys. It was the final live performance from Daft Punk, as the duo split in 2021.
Selena Gomez wears a pale pink dress while standing with her arm on the Weeknd, who wears a black suit and black shoes.
The Weeknd and Selena Gomez attend the 2017 Met Gala together, and he poses on the red carpet in a sleek Valentino suit.
The Weeknd looks up with his hand on his forehead while performing at Coachella in a bomber jacket.
The Weeknd headlines Coachella for the first time in April 2018.
The Weeknd sings into a microphone in front of a red background while wearing a denim jacket.
The Weeknd hits the road for the Starboy: Legend of the Fall 2017 world tour.
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A black and white illustration of the Weeknd frowning with a long, curly afro and a bruised nose.

By Kelsey Adams

Despite four nominations (R&B/soul recording of the year, single of the year, album of the year and TikTok Juno Fan Choice), Tesfaye took home zero Juno Awards for My Dear Melancholy, and he received zero Grammy nominations for it in 2019. He went radio silent for part of the year, taking a five-month social media hiatus from June to November.

Things picked up for him later in the year when he released “Blinding Lights” at the tail end of November, signifying yet again that he was ready to enter a new era. The Weeknd is a chameleon, and rather than staying complacent with what’s tried and true, he’s constantly in search of new sounds. This time, it was all about synthwave. Brighter than the dark synths we heard on My Dear Melancholy tracks “I was Never There” and “Hurt You,” synthwave is an electronic music microgenre inspired by ’80s action, sci-fi and horror film scores and video games and, notably, the compositions of John Carpenter, a director and composer known for the Halloween franchise.

Tesfaye cited Carpenter as an inspiration when writing Kiss Land, so maybe it was just a matter of time until the singer found his way to synthwave. Working with Max Martin again, the Weeknd created an irresistible banger with “Blinding Lights,” which has the high stakes and sultry sex appeal of an ’80s thriller.

In December, the Weeknd had a cameo in the Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler. Tesfaye played a 2011 version of himself in the movie, performing “The Morning” from his House of Balloons mixtape and donning a wig to bring back his signature locs for a period-accurate look.


An illustration of the Weeknd wearing a red jacket and frowning with a long, curly afro, bruised nose and bleeding lip.

By Melody Lau

As the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting everything down in March, artists and record labels followed suit and delayed the release of numerous albums — but not the Weeknd. He was one of the few who went ahead and put out a new (and fourth) album, After Hours, that same month. Not only did it become a critical hit, but it also became one of the best-selling albums of the year. Unintentionally, the Weeknd’s album about despair and isolation instantly turned into the soundtrack to an anxious and uncertain time. After Hours’ lead single, “Blinding Lights,” became the most-streamed song of the year.

That success didn’t translate into any Grammy nominations, though. With zero nods by the end of 2020, the Weeknd responded to the snub in a tweet: “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.” Several artists came to his defence, including Nicki Minaj, Elton John, Kid Cudi and Drake, who elaborated in an Instagram story: “I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards.”

Some believed that the exclusion was an act of revenge because the singer agreed to perform at both the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl halftime show, denying exclusivity to the former. The Weeknd at one point posted on Twitter: “Collaboratively planning a performance for weeks to not be invited? In my opinion zero nominations = you’re not invited!” Grammy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. dispelled these rumours by releasing a statement, which concluded with: “To be clear, voting in all categories ended well before the Weeknd’s performance at the Super Bowl was announced, so in no way could it have affected the nomination process.”

But the Grammy snub did little to slow down the Weeknd’s success, and After Hours would later win five Junos at the 2021 awards show: album of the year, single of the year for “Blinding Lights,” songwriter of the year, contemporary R&B recording of the year and artist of the year.



An illustration of the Weeknd performing at the Super Bowl with bandaged dancers while wearing black gloves and a sparkling red jacket.

By Kelsey Adams

In 2021, the Weeknd became the first Canadian to headline a solo halftime show at the Super Bowl, an immense milestone that he called “an honour.” The former mayor of Toronto, John Tory, even declared Feb. 7 The Weeknd Day to commemorate the achievement. The Weeknd spared no expense, spending $7 million of his own money to bring the production to life, and he told Variety that he was inspired by the spectacle of Diana Ross, Prince, Beyoncé and Michael Jackson’s halftime shows. It was a retrospective of his greatest hits, from “House of Balloons” to “Blinding Lights.” During “Can’t Feel my Face,” he performed while walking through a golden funhouse maze, holding a fish-eye lens camera that made him look erratic and cartoonish. It was the halftime show moment that birthed a million memes.

Ever prolific, the Weeknd ended the summer by teasing new music, posting a video with no explanation to his Twitter and Instagram accounts. As the camera sails across a galactic world in the video, you hear a driving bassline, robotic synths, distorted wailing and a faint “take my breath” before the screen goes dark. A week later the outright banger was released: “Take my Breath” truly lived up to its name, amping up the anticipation even more for his 2022 album, Dawn FM.



An illustration of an elderly version of the Weeknd with grey hair and a grey beard in front of blue storm clouds and lightning.

By Melody Lau

The Weeknd returned in January 2022 with Dawn FM, which pushed his nihilistic brand further into the dance sphere with help from co-executive producers Max Martin and Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never. Released nearly a year after his Super Bowl halftime show performance, Dawn FM’s grandiose, synth-laden sound was tailormade to fill stadiums of that size, which the Weeknd literally did when he finally took his two pandemic releases on the road for the long-awaited After Hours til Dawn tour.

In December, the Weeknd was honoured with the Canadian Music Week Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award for his social activism and charitable donations. “That this is a Canadian award sits deep with me,” the Weeknd expressed in a statement. Gary Slaight, president and CEO of the Slaight Family Foundation added: “His altruism, in a word, is exemplary.”

To round out his award count for the year, the Weeknd also took home two Junos: R&B recording of the year for his Dawn FM single “Take my Breath” and songwriter of the year for that same single, in addition to his work with Kanye West and Swedish House Mafia. And in the final days of 2022, the Weeknd re-entered the film world with “Nothing is Lost (You Give me Strength),” a new theme song for James Cameron’s box-office hit Avatar: The Way of Water.



An illustration of the Weeknd wearing a gold crown and black glasses in front of a starry red sky in space with a grey moon.

By Natalie Harmsen

With a decade of success behind him, the Weeknd shows no signs of hitting the brakes. At the beginning of 2023, he smashed yet another record: “Blinding Lights” became the most-streamed song in Spotify history. In February, he made Spotify history again by being the first artist to reach 100 million monthly listeners. And in March, the Weeknd became the artist with the second-most wins in Junos history, sitting on the list just after Anne Murray.

He also found time to release a new concert film in February, The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium, which captured his final North American show of the After Hours til Dawn tour.

Having conquered the charts and the Super Bowl, the Weeknd is now focusing on his next challenge: acting. Tesfaye recently announced that he’ll take on his first lead role in a film directed by Trey Edward Shults. Details about the plot and release date are under wraps, but the Weeknd co-wrote and produced the movie, which also stars Jenna Ortega and Barry Keoghan.

He’s also working on an upcoming HBO drama, The Idol, which he co-created, co-wrote and co-produced with Sam Levinson (of Euphoria) and Reza Fahim. It’s due out this year, although a new report from Rolling Stone details a heavily delayed project. The report also includes allegations of a toxic work environment. In a recent statement to People, HBO denied all allegations.

While there’s no telling what will follow Dawn FM, if the last 10 years have taught listeners anything, it’s that Tesfaye thrives when pulling off the unexpected. He may be in his early 30s with five studio albums and three mixtapes in the rearview mirror, but it’s only the beginning, as he told Variety:

“I feel like my career is just starting.”


Design and artwork: Ben Shannon

Website concept and development: Geoff Isaac

Lead producers: Holly Gordon, Natalie Harmsen

Audio read by: Natalie Harmsen

Producers: Kelsey Adams, Melody Lau, Robert Rowat, Andrea Warner

Executive producer: Ben Aylsworth

Photos: Getty