Following His Incredible Super Bowl Performance, DDW Looks Back On The Career Of An Icon In The Making
With eight Billboard Music Awards, five American Music Awards, two MTV Video Music Awards and three Grammys to his name, The Weeknd has already achieved more in the last ten years than the majority of artists might achieve in a lifetime. This week, however, saw the critically-acclaimed singer, songwriter and record producer deliver the defining performance of his career at The Super Bowl Halftime Show.
As the Super Bowl Halftime Show is synonymous with bold performances, huge sets and incredible visuals, there was huge pressure on The Weeknd to deliver the atmosphere and excitement of previous events in a year when the Super Bowl had to be physically smaller than ever before – and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Taking to the stage in Florida’s Raymond James Stadium, The Weeknd showcased several of his most memorable hits to a restricted audience of 25,000 attendees and millions of television viewers across the world, in a performance featuring a ‘robot choir’, incredible Las Vegas inspired-set and a cast of hundreds of dancers dressed in striking costumes reflecting The Weeknd’s own current signature style.
It was clear to those watching that The Weeknd is well on his way to becoming a true music industry icon, having seen an astronomical rise to fame over the last few years. Today, we take a look back at the musical evolution that The Weeknd has experienced, from his 2013 debut to his 2020 concept album, After Hours, which paved the way for this career-defining moment.
Kiss Land (2013)
With his three mixtapes, now collectively known as the Balloons Trilogy, having been met with widespread praise, The Weeknd had embarked on a tour of the US, beginning with a spot at Coachella and culminating in sold-out performances in New York. It was life on tour that had inspired the sound and story of his debut album, Kiss Land, released in the September of 2013 – though it was by no means a tribute to the hedonism and glamour of the lifestyle you might associate with a popular touring artist.
“Kiss Land symbolizes the tour life, but it’s a world that I created in my head,” he told Complex, explaining the concept of the project, “When I think about Kiss Land, I think about a terrifying place. It’s a place I’ve never been to before and that I’m very unfamiliar with. An environment that’s just honest fear.”
“I don’t know who I am right now and I’m doing all these outlandish things in a setting that I’m not familiar with. To me, it’s the most terrifying thing ever.”
Powerful, unnerving synth and samples of screaming were used throughout Kiss Land to emphasise this meaning, with the jeopardy of the fictional world further embodied through the use of distorted vocals, particularly used to great effect in the album’s second track, The Town. The Weeknd positioned himself as a somewhat sinister narrator in the Kiss Land tale, largely presenting as a villain on many of the album’s tracks – particularly Pretty, which sees him commit the violent murder of a former girlfriend and her new lover.
It was clear from the very beginning that The Weeknd had stories to tell, and that he was set on finding innovative and, at times, shocking ways of telling them – a bold sign of things to come later in his career.
Beauty Behind The Madness (2015)
There’s undoubtedly a tonal shift between Kiss Land and The Weeknd’s sophomore album Beauty Behind The Madness, though that’s not to say that it wasn’t just as impactful. In fact, it’s arguably The Hills, the album’s second supporting single, that put him on most listeners’ radar and propelled his career even further into the mainstream.
Beauty Behind The Madness differs from Kiss Land in the sense that it’s far more reminiscent of The Weeknd’s reality, exploring in-depth his experiences with love, sex, fame and drugs. There’s no shortage of darker emotions and themes conveyed through many of the tracks on the album, though you have to be listening closely to the lyrics to notice. They are – for the most part – expertly disguised amongst upbeat synth-pop, R&B and rousing orchestral arrangements.
One such example and perhaps one of his most well-known tracks to this day is Can’t Feel My Face, which was subject to plenty of speculation around the time of its release – though it’s widely accepted that the track details The Weeknd’s experiences with drug addiction during the first years of his career.
This album also saw three collaborations with other prominent artists in the shape of Prisoner (with Lana Del Rey), Dark Times (with Ed Sheeran) and Losers (with Labrinth). He had also secured a feature on the soundtrack of Fifty Shades Of Grey with his first single from the album, Earned It, which moved away from the R&B and synth-heavy nature of the rest of the album in favour of a powerful orchestral instrumental, drawing comparisons to the themes of the James Bond series. It was quickly clear that The Weeknd was only going to grow in popularity, influence and creativity from here on in.
Starboy was perhaps the first of The Weeknd’s albums which embraced his new-found mainstream fame rather than pushed back against it, focusing less on the trials and tribulations of fame itself and more on the problems with the excess that his new lifestyle seemed to encourage.
This album sees The Weeknd delve into the all-consuming nature of the celebrity lifestyle and the way that it changed him personally, as well as the way he speaks to and behaves with others. One track, Reminder, even confirms the popular interpretation of Can’t Feel My Face, with the lyrics ‘I just won a new award from a kids’ show, talking ‘bout a face numbing from a bag of blow.’ While Kiss Land saw a character created by The Weeknd consumed by the need for revenge and requital in a false reality, Starboy sees The Weeknd himself become somewhat suffocated by the very real world that he has found himself wrapped up in – and yet he’s learning to enjoy it.
The glamour and excess of this lifestyle are embodied in the sound of the album through infectious synth-pop and electronic dance beats, with two collaborations with Daft Punk – arguably the kingpins of the electronic genre – providing two of the stand-out tracks on the album. Both the titular single Starboy and its follow-up I Feel It Coming are a seamless coming-together of The Weeknd’s trademarks with the signature sound of Daft Punk, opening and closing the album respectively in spectacular fashion.
Perhaps the best example of the evolution of The Weeknd’s tone across Starboy and its predecessor is the way he writes about his romantic life. Beauty Behind The Madness features lyrics alluding to The Weeknd’s approach with women being somewhat calculated, best demonstrated by Dark Times. The lyrics of this track demonstrate a selfish approach to his romantic interests, allowing women to get involved and become close to him, before casting them away with a nonchalant rejection – as he puts it himself, ‘this ain’t the right time for you to fall in love with me, baby, I’m just being honest’.
Starboy, on the other hand, presents The Weeknd as unashamedly reluctant to get too far involved with anything or anyone – and he’s not interested in letting anybody think otherwise. The album’s stand-out dance track, Rockin’, is an unapologetic party track dedicated to working hard and playing harder, as he tells his conquest ‘you don’t have to spend your life with me, you don’t have to waste your energy – we can just be rockin’ and ‘I’m too distracted with the life I’m trying to pay’.
While Beauty Behind The Madness saw The Weeknd reflect on many of his lowest points in life, Starboy sees him let go and make the most of the lifestyle he has created for himself – and he wants you to know all about it.
My Dear Melancholy, (2018)
My Dear Melancholy is the shortest of The Weeknd’s albums with just seven tracks, and is thematically the furthest removed from the rest of his work. Gone are the fables of Kiss Land, the unwavering confidence of Beauty Behind The Madness and the hedonistic narrative of Starboy – My Dear Melancholy is, as you may expect from the title, The Weeknd at his most self-reflective.
A musical introspective of The Weeknd’s feelings towards not only himself but towards the relationships that he has experienced throughout his life, My Dear Melancholy, shows him at his most open and vulnerable, with the lyrics of the songs reading less like R&B ballads and more like love letters and diary entries. While this album didn’t particularly yield any huge hits (at least, not on the same scale as The Hills or Starboy), it certainly allowed fans a closer look into the mind of The Weeknd – and worked to explain the persona he had put forward in his previous work.
The stand-out track on My Dear Melancholy, is undoubtedly Call Out My Name, a heartfelt and emotionally-charged track, largely rumoured to be about The Weeknd’s break-up from actress-singer Selena Gomez towards the end of 2017 after ten months of dating. The track appears to appeal almost directly to Gomez, desperate for reconciliation, with The Weeknd asking ‘Why can’t you wait ‘til I fall out of love?’.
While Call Out My Name is still musically brilliant, The Weeknd makes it clear that the words are the most important aspect to this track, closing the album with a powerful A Capella version.
It’s immediately clear whilst listening to this album that The Weeknd has gone through a huge emotional shift and a period of growth, leaving him questioning his opinions on love and romance altogether. In the track Hurt You, he hints that he may have given up on love completely, with the opening line ‘Now I know relationship’s my enemy, so stay away from me’.
While the sound of the album is still largely characteristic of The Weeknd’s musical style, the lyrics to the songs on My Dear Melancholy, paint a picture of a man with a very different viewpoint on love than he has previously put forward, allowing listeners a rare insight into The Weeknd’s highly-publicised relationship and subsequent break-up, entirely through his own eyes.
After Hours (2020)
The Weeknd’s incredible Super Bowl Half Time Show performance comes almost a year on from the release of his most conceptually ambitious project yet, 2020’s After Hours.
Given that My Dear Melancholy, saw The Weeknd drop his facade entirely for a moment of honesty and vulnerability, it makes perfect sense that its successor sees him adopt an all-new character to tell a tale of psychological horror through fourteen fantastically 80s-inspired tracks and a carefully-considered series of public appearances, remaining in character throughout.
However, the After Hours story is arguably best interpreted through its outstanding accompanying videos. Beginning with the music video for Heartless, followed by Blinding Lights, a powerful short film under the After Hours title, the accompanying videos for In Your Eyes, Until I Bleed Out, Snowchild, Too Late and, most recently, Save Your Tears, all woven between live performances across TV shows and awards ceremonies, carefully constructed to fit in with the After Hours timeline.
Told over fourteen months and with potentially more to come following his watershed moment last weekend, the story of After Hours takes The Weeknd to darker and more chilling depths than ever before and is told in absolutely spectacular fashion. It’s clear that there are very few artists in the mainstream today with the imagination and creativity to carry off a project like this quite so effortlessly.
If you find yourself with any free time over the next few days, the full chronology of After Hours makes for incredible viewing and listening.
Thrilling, twisted and delightfully bizarre, After Hours is all the proof we need that The Weeknd is truly a musical icon in the making – and we’ve no doubt he’ll follow it with something equally exciting in the next few years.