For an artist whose entire year-one shtick was darkness and mystery, the Weeknd has taken his music to slicker and more accessible places at every turn since. His 2011 debut mixtape, House of Balloons, was a coup, a jarring reminder that R&B could be dark, sexy, and proggy at the same time. But albums the Weeknd has made after graduating from anonymous maker of excellent mixtapes to mainstream A-list chart-topper have elevated the singer’s profile at the expense of the purity of his sound. Like a chef who sells a recipe to a corporation that mass-produces it, using ingredients that are less expensive and easier to preserve than the originals, major-label Weeknd often gestures at the aesthetic of his Trilogy tapes, but the passion that made you want to push off into the night and get your heart broken comes and goes. Cuts like “Tell Your Friends” and “The Hills” went there, but “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “Reminder” were every bit as numbing as the downers the singer munches in his lyrics.
Sometimes the price of getting your music piping out of clothing-store PA systems and in movie trailers is padding the sharp edges and embracing a little sweetness. So 2016’s Starboy went all-in on juicy synth textures, calling up the dance-music authorities Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat, Daft Punk, and Diplo to work alongside rap guys like Jake One, Frank Dukes, Metro Boomin, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The result was a collection of lush, cinematic songs marred by a whiff of party-boy boilerplate. Abel Tesfaye (his real name) sounded happy in his excess, when his songs used to carry a relatable hint of self-destructive displeasure. The difference was subtle but inescapable, like the moment your favorite reality show gets wind of how many people are watching. One minute they’re acting out for the people in the room, and the next, they’re playing to an audience, concocting catchphrases for the fans quoting them on Twitter and mugging for the people using their faces as reaction GIFs. The shtick became self-aware and lost a little luster.
Since Starboy’s release, the Weeknd has been involved in two high-profile celebrity breakups: He’d been dating model Bella Hadid since 2015, but the union ended, as far as the public could tell, in early 2017, when the singer was caught by TMZ making out with pop star Selena Gomez. Tesfaye and Gomez appeared to spend most of 2017 together, but by October, she was back to spending time with her ex, Justin Bieber. The news was catnip for the kind of fan who jumps at the sound of their favorite singer’s emotional distress. It’s a chilling thought process that thirsts for drama in an artist’s personal life so that they have more to write and sing about. But at the root of the thinking is people yearning for their own needs to be spoken for. When the Weeknd sings about a Star Trek roof in his Wraith, it doesn’t grip us like when he confronts a cheating partner with a blood-curdling “I know everything.”