Warning: this article discusses depictions of violence and abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
One of the most unique musicians working today is Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd. His work is catchy, memorable, and above all, deeply visceral. He brings a veneer of class to lyrics of melancholy and heartbreak. He’s off-putting to some, and to others a lyrical genius, spitting fresh R&B with falsetto highs.
The Weeknd began a stride in 2016 at the 58th Grammy Awards, winning awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best R&B Performance, and wrapping the year with the release of his triple platinum album, Starboy.
Starboy was a work that draws its strength from collaboration. The album features Lana Del Ray, Kendrick Lamar, Future, and most notably, Daft Punk.
Daft Punk has been an enigma ever since they hit the music scene. The French duo, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, have been an electronic music staple since the late 90’s with the release of Homework, breaking out in the early 2000’s with the release of their Discovery album, and finally taking it mainstream with the release of Random Access Memories in 2013. Their entire motif is centered on the idea hiding their face from the public; becoming a human robot, if you will. It’s a choice that’s lead to Thomas and Guy being able to live relatively normal lives without fame following them everywhere they go.
It’s also an important creative choice that shows up in their work.
Songs like “Something About Us,” “Human After All,” and “Touch” all play to the idea of longing for human feelings while still feeling incapable of them; behind the vocoders and sampling is a soul you used to hear in the discotheques of old. It’s brilliance in a bottle, pure and simple.
Daft Punk features on the opening and closing tracks of Starboy, namely “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming.” These two are not only the best and catchiest songs of the album, but they’re also the most soulful. The Weeknd plays the role of top dog celebrity in the first song and heartthrob romantic in the second; Daft Punk seals the album like a pair of bookends with emotional vocoders.
That brings us to 2020. Last year, The Weeknd gave us his latest studio album, After Hours. Where Daft Punk’s work is about robots expressing human emotion, After Hours is about someone slowly loosing their humanity and grip on reality. It’s tragic in a beautiful way, orchestrated visually by each music video released for the album.
Starting with the release of “Heartless,” we’ve watched The Weeknd’s character power through a trip of addiction, depression, heartbreak, violence, mental illness, body horror, and sexual abuse, culminating in the release of the music video for “Save Your Tears,” where his entire face has been janked up by plastic surgery.
The memes abounded as soon as the video dropped, with people comparing his new look to “Handsome Squidward” from Spongebob. But the facade has far deeper meaning. Behind the mask is an overwhelming tragedy, not dissimilar from Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. This Weeknd has been broken by his past mistakes, and in trying to rebuild himself he’s become disfigured, putting on a permanent smile to hide the pain.
It’s hard to watch The Weeknd without remembering depictions of black pain in entertainment. Too often, black pain and suffering is depicted in pop culture as a struggle that leaves viewers to be voyeurs. Sometimes those portrayals are outright racist. The Weeknd avoids this pitfall by keeping the focus on the music. His character’s loss of humanity is happening behind the lyrics, and his music videos offer a commentary on our culture’s rot and poison.
What’s so beautiful about artistry is that you get to say something about the human condition. All the things that make us human are barely understood, yet we still try to make sense of it through stories and song. Artists are who we lean on as our escape from a scary world. For artists like The Weeknd, their work is often their own escape. After Hours shows us a man with a lot of inner demons, someone who just wants to love but keeps falling back into the madness. It’s Shakespearian tragedy for the 21st century.
Some have come away from After House asking if The Weeknd is really truly okay. Without asking Abel myself, I’m gonna hedge my bets on the answer being yes. After all, he’s wise enough to express himself through art. Plus, he’s currently scheduled to headline the Super Bowl LX halftime show.
I do believe, however, that Abel’s tapped into the darkness of the human condition. We humans feel negative emotions everyday. The only way to not act upon our feelings is to feel them and let them out.
You might even call it a reverse Daft Punk.
And for more from WOBAM Entertainment, check our our review of Black Panther: The Album featuring “Pray For Me” by The Weekend.
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