In the summer of 2015, attending Lollapalooza after my freshman year of college, I followed a girl to The Weeknd’s set instead of going to see Paul McCartney. Despite the latter’s status as a relic in show business and the balking of my rock-raised friends, I felt certain that the former would soon be making his own pop history and wanted to see him then, before it all happened. At the time, The Weeknd was still a somewhat-underground sensation, his hazy, hollow sex-tales having recently won over the Tumblr-sphere and a handful of critics. Though his second LP, Beauty Behind The Madness, would release in a few short months to fully reveal his pop ambition, that was still some time away, perhaps too far to justify his headlining gig. So, when I passed on a chance to see a Beatle, I did so for an act still in one of its most primitive stages, a gritty artist who still hadn’t quite tidied up. Plus, I was nineteen years old and following a girl who I admired. The Weeknd was an obvious choice.
Before Abel Tesfaye — the starry-eyed heartbreaker the world knows as The Weeknd — was being spun in every Starbucks in America, everything felt darker, dirtier and less guaranteed. His early work — the stunningly erotic and heavily narcotized Trilogy mixtape series — largely defined adolescent intimacy for a certain bunch of digital youth, its punch-drunk pondering upon emotionless sex seamlessly ushering in Tinder-era romantics. Riding their success, Abel acquired creative control over his major label debut, Kiss Land, then upped the ante of his signature style by crafting more elaborate, mostly self-produced anthems. The project affirmed his commitment to dodging convention at every turn but failed to yield a mainstream hit, stalling his career progression significantly. In 2015, just days before I saw perform in Chicago, New York Times Magazine described him as “a no-hit wonder: a cult act with millions of devotees and almost no mainstream profile.” Aware of this reputation, he set out for more.
I often employ my Lollapalooza experience as a benchmark when considering the remarkable range that The Weeknd has spanned in his brief, though iconic, career. In 2011, he arrived online as a broken outcast searching for thrill-seeking women aside whom he could empty out credit cards for highs. Yet, today, it’d be impossible to max out his accounts: Last year, the endless success of his 2016 release, Starboy, and its accompanying tour earned him an estimated $92 million. Now the sixth most-streamed musician worldwide, The Weeknd’s clout has been recognized by brands and influencers alike — from Bella Hadid to Grey Goose Vodka. In wake of this visibility, it can be difficult to imagine the inescapable unknownness that initially inspired him to sing. Alas, I often employ my Lollapalooza experience as a reference, since it’s truly one of the last times that The Weeknd had something to prove, his successful plunge into superstardom still not entirely guaranteed.
About a month ago, Travis Scott tweeted that Abel’s “new album” reminded him of “when [he] heard him for the first time.” Though this nod is meant to make any veteran seem re-aligned with his roots, it bears unique weight when referring to The Weeknd, whose earliest work still manages to fully engross its listeners. The Trilogy mixtapes (House Of Balloons, Thursday, Echoes Of Silence) are defined by an emotional lacking and drugged-out drama that Abel has since largely abandoned in his songwriting. It’s the sort of twisted, arthouse R&B that can only be cried out with no one watching. For this reason, he exchanged their mourning tone for a more fresh and conceited energy immediately after acquiring mainstream attention. Suddenly, it seemed Abel had no more longings left to be sung about. So, when Travis Scott published that tweet, he knew damn well what he was implying: Apparently, The Weeknd was in pain.
Last week, The Weeknd followed up on Travis’ teaser by releasing a surprise EP, My Dear Melancholy. Spanning just six songs, it’s already been praised for showcasing his long-disguised, damaged persona that fans so eagerly crave. Plus, arriving just ahead of his headlining gig at Coachella, it seems destine to buoy his highly-profitable touring career. Yet, My Dear, Melancholy is much more than the usual short, strategic offering from a pop artist intent on staying abuzz. Ferociously penned to an ex-lover as much as to heartbreak itself, its songs interweave to chronicle his petty plight overcoming a new loneliness. Some tracks are insidious, others warm and indulgent, but all six are united by their artist’s constant pain, an emotion we haven’t heard him wrestle in years.
My Dear Melancholy opens with stadium-sized ballad “Call Out My Name.” An elusive wallowing on a burnt out relationship, the song finds Abel painfully remembering times that he prioritized an ex-lover and struggling to comprehend why she can’t stay until he falls “out of love.” Paired with “Try Me,” a shimmering, sexual plea on which he pretends to be surprised that a tied-up woman is interested in him, the introduction becomes a vivid gateway into the everlasting paradox of The Weeknd: He demands everything on “Call Out My Name,” albeit for temporary period, but on “Try Me,” just humbly asks for an opportunity to remind the subject of his sexual availability. Both requests are entirely in-character for the twenty-eight year old crooner who’s known for bearing an aroma of mystery. The fact that they aim to ignite two entirely separate narratives will — based on history — not be a problem.
Standout “Wasted Times” is an ironically uplifting recount of hours that Abel wasted aside a rebound, attempting to forget his main intrigue. Even though the main girl has “put his life through hell,” and even though they “ain’t been talking,” he can’t help but wonder who she “give that love to now.” It’s a signature exercise in loveless sex and damaged pleading for affection from The Weeknd. Yet, co-crafted by Skrillex, the song employs vocal filters and other electronic tools to revive his dark, signature soundscape with a more modern pop feel. Abel’s surrendering shrugs (“I ain’t got no business catchin’ feelings”) glow atop bouncy, synthetic drums before eventually being chopped upped on an ear-catching bridge. By the time things mellow for his painful conclusion (“I don’t want to wake up / If you ain’t layin’ next to me”), some listeners might even believe him.
“I Was Never There” remains on cue with its predecessors, with Abel reminiscing upon the “mindless sex” of a relationship during which he “was never there.” It’s more dramatic than others though, its opening verse alluding to suicide (“What makes a grown man take his life?”) and its conclusion attributing fiery blame (“It’s all because of you!”). It helps set the tone for explosive follow up “Hurt You,” the EP’s most Starboy-influenced effort and a song that finds Abel at his most unforgiving. On the latter, he affirms relationships as the “enemy,” then works toward an ultimate in-character pre-chorus: “If it's love you want again, don't waste your time / But if you call me up, I'm fuckin' you on sight.” The hook comes through a full-fledged Michael Jackson falsetto and the beat is dance-floor-ready. Produced by Gesaffelstein — who also worked on “I Was Never There” — this pop stroke rounds out a mid-project one-two punch.
“Privilege” is the EP’s closing track, as well as its most tender and heart-wrenching. Over hypnotic drums, a filtered sample and spooky, minimalist synths, Abel bares farewell to the ex-lover who’s held his pen for the last five songs and promises to never feel sorry about doing so. “I don’t want to hear that you are suffering,” he elaborates only slightly. “I’mma fuck the pain away, and I know I’ll be okay.” In context of the EP, “Privilege” is a natural conclusion to the heartbroken, wanderlust sex-bender that carries along much of the narrative. Yet, in the larger picture, the song represents a rare moment of vulnerability in a newly-anointed mega-star’s career, one wherein he is uncharacteristically damaged, coming down, for the first time in however many years.
In the summer of 2015, attending Lollapalooza after my freshman year of college, I followed a girl to The Weeknd’s set because I wanted to experience something dangerous and shocking, to enter his eerie dystopia and melt beneath a moonlit sky, hand-in-hand with my counterpart, the tingling melodies forcing our bodies close together. It wasn’t the first time I heard Abel Tesfaye sing, but over time, I’ve come to consider it my proper introduction to his act. Though the night’s setlist focused on charting singles (“I Can’t Feel My Face,” “Earned It”) and buzzing collaborations (“Love Me Harder,” “Crew Love”), The Weeknd fought to uphold a sedative aroma from within which his grinning tales might somehow seem unordinary. He opened with “High For This,” a tense, dubstep-induced pledge for trust, then worked in the synthetic orgy “House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls.” Droopy hangover tale “The Morning” served as the set’s centerpiece, its emotionless goodbyes acquiring some context from “The Zone,” and for the encore, he returned to sing the bone-chilling “Wicked Games.” Throughout it all, Abel stood almost motionless in the spotlight, still alone, still in seemingly desperate need for a distant affection. To be in the crowd was to experience his longing, share in his pain. To leave the show holding a loved-one was to truly believe that time is finite.
My Dear Melancholy makes many efforts to effect its listeners like The Weeknd’s earliest records could. Executive produced by Frank Dukes and packed with subliminal shots at ex-girl Selena Gomez, it aims to crack the Starboy caricature and remind fans that Abel still feels things. Heartbreak tales like “Call Out My Name” remind us that he still loses some, too. Meanwhile, closing track “Privilege” — its whimpering singer seeking refuge in “two red pills” meant to “take the blues away” — digs a tunnel to Abel’s underground past. All combined, the EP is a cinematic exploration of its artist’s boredom and brokenness. It finds him isolated with thoughts and, sometimes, even sobriety, but also concentrated on channeling that environment into his music. To deem the project reminiscent of Trilogy is to make an eager presumption. However, it’s evidently been crafted by a damaged singer-songwriter with a fiery pen and a hot agenda. Only time will tell what’s coming next — or how heavily it will land upon its listeners.