Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, singer, songwriter (born 16 February 1990 in Scarborough, ON). A global pop superstar, The Weeknd is known for his compelling brand of atmospheric, trip-hop-infused R&B and synth-driven pop music. His debut, House of Balloons (2011), sparked a storm of international attention. His chart-topping sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), solidified his status as a pop phenomenon. In 2015, he became the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart. In 2021, his song “Blinding Lights” supplanted Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit “The Twist” as Billboard’s No. 1 Song of All Time. The Weeknd was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 and performed solo at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2021. He has won 17 Juno Awards from 35 nominations, four Grammy Awards and 30 SOCAN Awards, among many other honours.
Tesfaye was born and raised in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. He is of Ethiopian descent and learned Ahmaric (a Semitic language) from his grandmother, who was his primary caretaker through his childhood while his single mother worked. He was influenced musically in his youth by R&B and pop artists such as Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Prince. He dropped out of high school at 17 and lived with two friends in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. He experimented with drugs, worked at an American Apparel store, and began to write and record music.
Early Career and Recordings
In 2008, Tesfaye became involved with a Toronto-based R&B and pop trio called the Noise, which eventually morphed into a writing and production team consisting of Tesfaye, by this time going by the moniker The Weekend, and producer Jeremy Rose. In 2009, while working on demo tapes and songs for other artists, they met Drake, who considered including their track “Birthday Suit” on his debut album, Thank Me Later (2010).
After creative differences led to a split with Rose, Tesfaye began to work at Toronto’s Dream House Studios with producers Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese and Martin “Doc” McKinney, known for his work with Esthero, k-os and Hawksley Workman. He also changed the spelling of his stage name in order to avoid copyright issues with a band from London, Ontario, called The Weekend.
Mixtapes and Breakthrough Success
In early March 2011, Drake sent a Twitter message directing his fans to his October’s Very Own website to download The Weeknd’s song, “Wicked Games,” the lyrics of which (“Bring your love baby I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain”) established his brooding brand of nihilistic romanticism. Drake’s blog post used the phrase “OVOXO,” denoting the connection between Drake’s OVO crew and The Weeknd’s label, XO (reported to be a reference to the drugs ecstasy and oxycodone).
Drake continued to raise awareness of Tesfaye’s music in further tweets, and on 21 March 2011, The Weeknd released, for free download, the mixtape House of Balloons. It features an unusually atmospheric and downbeat brand of soul and R&B, and employs eclectic samples from Siouxie and the Banshees, the Cocteau Twins and Aaliyah. House of Balloons was downloaded more than 200,000 times in three weeks, and was met with critical acclaim from such publications as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The latter summarized the overall tone of this “intriguing new alternative R&B voice” by saying, "Debauchery is obviously nothing new in R&B, but this takes it a step further ― the drugs are harder, the come-ons feel predatory and lecherous, and the general feeling is self-hating rather than celebratory."
By July 2011, House of Balloons had been nominated for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize, and the track “High for This” had been used in the ad campaign for the HBO TV series Entourage. However, The Weeknd refused to give any interviews and only released partially obscured photos of himself, building an aura of intrigue around his image and his ambient style of music. His first live show — at Toronto’s Mod Club on 24 July 2011 — sold out within hours. Scalpers hawked tickets for upwards of $300 and record label representatives from the US were on hand. Critics in attendance praised The Weeknd’s vocal performance, with the Globe and Mail’s Joshua Ostroff remarking on his “dry-ice falsetto and disquietingly sexual lyricism.” Later that week, he played a live set at Drake’s OVOFest to thousands of people at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheater.
On 18 August 2011, The Weeknd released a second mixtape for free download entitled Thursday, featuring Drake on “The Zone,” and on 27 September he released a remix of “Shake it Out” by UK orchestral pop group Florence and The Machine. On 2 November, he and Illangelo released their remix of Lady Gaga’s “Marry the Night,” and on 16 November 2011, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times reviewed The Weeknd’s live show in Guelph, Ontario, and declared him “the most invigorating, surprising and affecting new force in R&B.”
November 2011 also saw the release of Drake’s Grammy-winning album Take Care, which featured The Weeknd as a vocalist and co-producer on two tracks (“Crew Love” and “The Ride”) and co-writer on three others. “Crew Love” became an international hit, cracking Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 and US Hot 100, and charting in the Top 20 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart and in the Top 10 on the UK R&B chart.
On 21 December 2011, The Weeknd released his third free mixtape, Echoes of Silence, which includes “D.D.,” a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” At year’s end, House of Balloons was named to top-10-of-the-year lists by such publications as the New York Times, Billboard and the Guardian, and was ranked as the seventh best-reviewed album of the year by the review aggregator Metacritic.
After playing the Coachella festival in early 2012, The Weeknd sold out his five-date debut US tour in the spring. In September, he signed a major label deal with Universal’s Republic Records through his imprint label, XO. He then opened for Florence and the Machine at a string of US shows in the fall of 2012.
On 13 November 2012, after a laborious process of gaining copyright clearance for the samples on all the songs, his three previously free mixtapes were re-mastered and released as the album Trilogy with three new tracks: “Twenty Eight,” “Valerie” and “Till Dawn (Here Comes the Sun).” Trilogy debuted at No. 5 on the Canadian album chart and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It sold 86,000 copies in the US during its first week, and was later certified triple platinum in both Canada and the US. The lead single, “Wicked Games,” was later certified a gold digital download in Canada and platinum single in the US.
In April 2013, The Weeknd won Juno Awards for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Trilogy) and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. After being named to Elle magazine’s “30 under 30” list, he appeared at Drake’s OVOFest in Toronto on 5 August 2013 for the third year running, quashing rumours of creative differences between the two artists. Ahead of a new album, The Weeknd released the single “Belong to the World,” which samples the Portishead song “Machine Gun.”
Kiss Land (2013)
After conducting no major press for the first two years of his career, The Weeknd gave his first media interview with Complex magazine in July 2013 to promote what he called his “first album,” Kiss Land, released in September 2013. Inspired by the experience of travelling beyond Toronto, and by the films of horror directors such as David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, the deceptively dark Kiss Land featured The Weeknd working with new producers, and was met with positive and mixed reviews by critics. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the US iTunes chart. The album was certified platinum in Canada in June 2022.
He made the first of several US television appearances performing “Pretty” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on 12 September 2013, and performed in front of a sold out crowd at London’s O2 arena on 26 November. He also appeared on Drake’s Would You Like a Tour? tour and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience as the opening act. He teamed with Doc McKinney and Illangelo to appear on M.I.A.’s album Matangi, and contributed the Rick Rubin-produced “Devil May Cry” to the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). He also received a Grammy nomination for his featured performance on Wiz Khalifa’s 2012 single, “Remember You.”
In early 2014, The Weeknd continued his transition from cult figure to high profile pop star by releasing covers of popular songs by Beyoncé (“Drunk in Love”) and Ty Dolla $ign (“Or Nah”) for free download. In June 2014, he released the new song “Often,” which was later certified a gold single in the US, and followed it up a month later with “King of the Fall,” which also served as the name of his four-date North American tour in September and October 2014.
His duet with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder,” was released on 30 September 2014 and went on to become his first Top 10 hit, reaching No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. They performed the song on NBC’s Saturday Night Live on 27 September and at the American Music Awards on 23 November. He then contributed the songs “Earned It” and “Where You Belong” to the soundtrack of the film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). He performed “Earned It” at the 2016 Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Original Song.
Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)
The Weeknd’s second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness, features collaborations with Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Ed Sheeran and Labyrinth, and was released in August 2015. It was preceded by lead singles “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” “The Hills” was released in May 2015, debuting at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; it later went to No. 1. The song’s cinematic music video, depicting The Weeknd abandoning two women injured in a car crash that he seemingly caused, was released at the same time. “The Hills” was later certified as a triple platinum digital download in Canada for sales of more than 240,000 units.
In June 2015, The Weeknd’s biggest hit to date, "Can’t Feel My Face,” debuted at No. 24 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. It reached No. 1 two months later. Produced by superstar hit-maker Max Martin, “Can't Feel My Face” earned comparisons to Michael Jackson and was certified five-times platinum in the US. It was named the best song of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, which praised The Weeknd’s “showstopping vocal performance” and the way he “cleverly disguises his obsession with drugs beneath a metaphor about a dangerously hot fling […] playing down his angst-y tendencies until there's just a hint of existential pain in his lighter-than-air falsetto.” The song went on to receive 2016 Grammy Award nominations for Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance.
The Weeknd became the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart when “Can't Feel My Face,” “The Hills” and “Earned It” landed there the week of 25 July 2015. Upon its release in August 2015, Beauty Behind the Madness debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and stayed there for three weeks. In September, The Weeknd became the first male artist in almost seven years to have two (“Can't Feel My Face” and “The Hills”) of the top three spots on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. In the chart week ending 10 October, “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face” were at No. 1 and 3 respectively, while Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” held No. 2 and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” was at No. 4, marking the first time in history that Canadians held the top four spots. The Weeknd also set a record in 2015 for winning the most SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards in one calendar year with five.
The success of Beauty Behind the Madness positioned The Weeknd as one of the biggest pop stars in the world. The album has been certified seven-times platinum in Canada and six-times platinum in the US. In 2015, it won an American Music Award for Favorite Male Artist–Soul/R&B and a Soul Train Music Award for Album of the Year. At the 2016 Grammy Awards, Beauty Behind the Madness won the award for Best Urban Contemporary Album while “Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)” won for Best R&B Performance. At the 2016 Juno Awards, The Weeknd took home five awards: Songwriter of the Year; Artist of the Year; Single of the Year for "Can't Feel My Face"; and Album of the Year and R&B/Soul Recording of the Year for Beauty Behind the Madness.
The Weeknd’s third studio album, Starboy, was released on 25 November 2016. The lead single and title track, which featured a collaboration with Daft Punk, was released on 21 September 2016. It debuted at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually hit No. 1, making it The Weeknd’s third No. 1 single. The song has since been certified diamond in Canada and 11-times platinum in the US. The album, which has been certified seven-times platinum in Canada and four-times platinum in the US, won the Best Urban Contemporary Album award at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, The Weeknd’s second win in that category. At the 2017 Juno Awards, Starboy won for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year.
My Dear Melancholy (2018)
On 30 March 2018, The Weeknd released his first EP, My Dear Melancholy. It debuted at No. 1 on the American Billboard 200 chart and was streamed over 26 million times on Apple Music on the first day of its release. Also in 2018, The Weeknd released the greatest hits album The Weeknd in Japan, which features tracks off his first three albums.
After Hours (2020)
The Weeknd’s fourth studio album, After Hours, was released on 20 March 2020. It was noted by critics and music journalists as a departure from his earlier work, given the influence of new wave and synth-driven dream pop on the album. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making it The Weeknd’s fourth No. 1 album in the US. It was quickly certified double platinum in the US and went to No. 1 in 20 countries, including Canada, where it was certified triple platinum. The lead single, “Heartless,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its second week on the chart.
In the album’s first week of release in March 2020, The Weeknd led the Billboard Hot 100, 200, Artist 100, Hot 100 Songwriters and Hot 100 Producers charts simultaneously — the first time this had been accomplished by any artist. That same week, the single “Blinding Lights” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for four weeks. The song went on to break records for the most weeks in the Top 5 (43), Top 10 (57), Top 40 (86) and on the Hot 100 (90). In the process, “Blinding Lights” supplanted Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit “The Twist” as Billboard’s No. 1 Song of All Time. A third single off the album, the Ariana Grande duet “Save Your Tears,” also hit No. 1 — The Weeknd’s sixth song to do so.
The album went on to be certified quintuple platinum in Canada and triple platinum in the US. However, despite commercial success and critical acclaim, neither the album nor its singles were nominated for any Grammy Awards that year. In a highly publicized public controversy, The Weeknd, who had earned three Grammys by that point, claimed “the Grammys were corrupt.” The Juno Awards, however, were a different story: The Weeknd won five, including Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, Single of the Year (“Blinding Lights”) and Songwriter of the Year. After Hours was named one of the Top 10 albums of the year by numerous publications, including Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and Variety.
2021 Super Bowl Halftime Show
On 5 February of 2021, The Weeknd released his second greatest hits compilation, The Highlights, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Two days later, on 7 February 2021, he became the first Canadian artist to headline the Super Bowl halftime show, performing eight songs. He was so committed to his vision for the performance, which involved an elaborate hall of mirrors and dozens of doppelganger back-up dancers, that he spent $7 million of his own money on the production.
Though some critics argued the performance didn’t live up to expectations, due to apparent audio trouble and problems with The Weeknd’s microphone, it nonetheless earned three Emmy Award nominations. More importantly, it had a significant effect on The Weeknd’s streaming figures, with nearly 50 million streams of his back catalogue on the day and day after his performance. He was also set to earn an average of $1.3 million per show on his forthcoming tour.
Dawn FM (2022)
The Weeknd’s fifth studio album, Dawn FM, was released on 7 January 2022. The lead single, “Take My Breath,” had been released in August 2021. It debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top 10 in more than 20 countries. The second single, “Sacrifice,” was released on the same day as the album, which was quickly certified platinum in Canada. Dawn FM builds on the synth-pop-heavy sound of After Hours while also bringing a lighter, more upbeat tone. The album is presented as a “psychedelic radio” broadcast (its station number, 103.5, is widely seen as a nod to Toronto Top-40 station Z103.5). It features interstitial narration by actor and comedian Jim Carrey, as well as collaborations with Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator. The album was very well-received by critics, with Variety’s Jem Aswad calling it “possibly the Weeknd's best and most fully realized album to date.”
After Hours til Dawn Stadium Tour (2022)
In February 2020, shortly before the release of After Hours in March, The Weekend announced that his 57-date After Hours World Tour would begin in Vancouver on 11 June and conclude in France on 12 November. However, the tour was postponed repeatedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2021, The Weekend announced that he was scrapping scheduled arena dates in favour of a stadium tour that would incorporate material from both the After Hours and Dawn FM albums. The After Hours til Dawn Stadium Tour began at Toronto’s Rogers Centre on 8 July 2022.
The Weeknd made his acting debut in the HBO music industry drama The Idol, in which he stars opposite Lily-Rose Depp and Dan Levy. A trailer for the series was released in August 2022, but a release date was not announced.
The dark, somnambulant mood of The Weeknd’s music, equal parts narcotic and nocturnal, has drawn much attention and critical praise. The Guardian’s Hermoine Hoby described The Weeknd’s songs as “narcotised-slow jams” in which “partying is an existential experience, sex is fraught with alienation, and everything registers as unreal and unsettling.” The Globe and Mail’s J. D. Considine has said, “His sound is hardly party music; it’s more like the after-party, with his sweet, plaintive tenor floating like cigarette smoke over darkly atmospheric synths and a slow, almost narcotic groove.” Rolling Stone has described him as “Drake with the soul of an art-school goth,” and stated bluntly that he “rocks a serious Eeyore vibe” and “specializes in sensual numbness.” Billboard wrote in 2015 that his catalogue is “mostly composed of gorgeously sung songs about getting high and slowly falling apart.”
Considine also observed that Tesfaye’s stage name could be read as “a double-edged pun, suggesting both ‘the weekend,’ with its promise of romance, relaxation and nightclub frolics, and ‘the weakened,’ with its recognition of the emotional toll life takes.” Jon Caramanica of the New York Times echoed that assessment by describing The Weeknd’s central thematic concerns as “romance as nihilism, or maybe nihilism as romance — I don’t know which is the chicken, and which is the egg. But there’s an outrageous darkness to his perspective on relationships, and his perspective on interacting with women, and it’s interesting because it doesn’t feel abusive.”
However, due to The Weeknd’s treatment of women in his songs, the Toronto Star characterized him, along with Bieber and Drake, as a “sensitive misogynist,” noting that the three stars “have managed to glaze over the general sexism of their oeuvres with a veneer of regretful, tormented sensitivity.”
In May 2014, Geoff Barrow of Portishead released a letter from The Weeknd’s licensing representatives showing that they had requested permission to sample the Portishead song “Machine Gun” on The Weeknd’s “Belong to the World” — permission that Barrow never granted. However, to date, he has not taken legal action against The Weeknd.
On 10 January 2013, The Weeknd was arrested after becoming involved in a fight at the Cromwell Hotel in Las Vegas and allegedly punching a police officer. After posting bail, he posted a picture of himself on Instagram walking towards a private jet, with the caption, “Escaped from Las Vegas.”
In December 2015, The Weeknd was sued for copyright infringement for illegally sampling the score from the 2013 movie The Machine in "The Hills." The film's composer, Tom Raybould, claimed that Emmanuel Nickerson, a producer on "The Hills,” sent him a direct message on Twitter saying he sampled his music and that it might appear on The Weeknd's next album. An undisclosed settlement was reached between the two parties.
In March 2021, The Weeknd announced that he would permanently boycott the Grammy Awards. “Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. This followed the news that After Hours and its hit singles had not been nominated for any Grammy Awards, despite commercial success and critical acclaim. In November 2020, Drake had called for the Grammys to be replaced for allegedly snubbing Black artists.
In September 2014, The Weeknd was recognized as a “young, inspirational Canadian who has achieved international success” by Canada’s Walk of Fame with the $10,000 Allan Slaight Award. In 2018, he was named a Next Generation Leader by Time magazine, which also named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020. The day of The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show, 7 February 2021, was declared “The Weeknd Day” in Toronto by Mayor John Tory.
- R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Trilogy) (2013)
- Breakthrough Artist of the Year (2013)
- R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (“Often”) (2015)
- Artist of the Year (2015)
- Album of the Year (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
- Single of the Year (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2016)
- R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
- Songwriter of the Year (2016)
- Artist of the Year (2016)
- R&B/Soul Recording of the Year (Starboy) (2017)
- Contemporary R&B Recording of the Year (After Hours) (2021)
- Single of the Year (“Blinding Lights”) (2021)
- Album of the Year (After Hours) (2021)
- Songwriter of the Year (2021)
- Artist of the Year (2021)
- Contemporary R&B Recording of the Year (“Take My Breath”) (2022)
- Songwriter of the Year (2022)
- Best Urban Contemporary Album (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
- Best R&B Performance (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”) (2016)
- Best Urban Contemporary Album (Starboy) (2018)
- Best Melodic Rap Performance (“Hurricane,” shared with Kanye West) (2022)
MuchMusic Video Awards
- Video of the Year (“Often”) (2015)
- Best Pop Video (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”) (2015)
- Most Buzzworthy Canadian Artist (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (”Wicked Games”) (2013)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Live For”) (2013)
- Urban Music Award (“Wanderlust”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Earned It”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“The Hills”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Often”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Love Me Harder”) (2015)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Starboy”) (2016)
- No. 1 Song Award (“Might Not”) (2016)
- International Achievement Award (2016)
- Songwriter of the Year (shared with Belly) (2016)
- Pop/Rock Music Award (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2016)
- Pop/Rock Music Award (“The Hills”) (2016)
- Pop/Rock Music Award (“Earned It”) (2016)
- SOCAN Classic Music Award (“Can’t Feel My Face”) (2016)
- SOCAN Classic Music Award (“The Hills”) (2016)
- International Song Award (“The Hills”) (2016)
- Online Streaming Music Award (“Earned It”) (2016)
- Pop Music Award (“Starboy”) (2017)
- Urban Music Award (“Might Not”) (2017)
- Viral Song Award (“Some Way”) (2018)
- Rap Music Award (“Unforgettable”) (2018)
- Pop Music Award (“I Feel It Coming”) (2018)
- International Song Award (“Blinding Lights”) (2021)
- Pop Music Award (“Blinding Lights”) (2021)
- Pop Music Award (“Heartless”) (2021)
- R&B Music Award (“In Your Eyes”) (2021)
- Songwriter of the Year (2021)
- R&B Music Award (“You Right”) (2022)
American Music Awards
- Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B (2015)
- Favorite Soul/R&B Album (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2015)
- Favorite Male Artist – Soul/R&B (2020)
- Favorite Song – Soul/R&B (“Heartless”) (2020)
- Favorite Soul/R&B Album (After Hours) (2020)
- Favorite Male R&B Artist (2021)
Billboard Music Awards
- Top Streaming Song (Audio) (“The Hills”) (2016)
- Top R&B Song (“The Hills”) (2016)
- Top R&B Album (Beauty Behind the Madness) (2016)
- Top 100 Artist (2016)
- Top Song Sales Artist (2016)
- Top Radio Songs Artist (2016)
- Top Streaming Songs Artist (2016)
- Top R&B Artist (2016)
- Top R&B Male Artist (2019)
- Top R&B Album (After Hours) (2021)
- Top Artist (2021)
- Top Male Artist (2021)
- Top Hot 100 Artist (2021)
- Top Radio Songs Artists (2021)
- Top R&B Artist (2021)
- Top R&B Male Artist (2021)
- Top R&B Male Artist (2022)
Canadian Radio Music Awards
- SOCAN Song of the Year ("Can't Feel My Face") (2016)
- Fans' Choice
MTV Video Music Awards
- Video of the Year (“Blinding Lights”) (2020)
- Best R&B (“Blinding Lights”) (2020)
Soul Train Music Awards
- Album of the Year (“Beauty Behind the Madness”) (2015)
- Best R&B/Soul Male Artist (2015)
- Allan Slaight Award, Canada’s Walk of Fame (2014)
- ASCAP Award (“Crew Love”), American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (2012)
- Centric Award (“Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey)”), BET Awards (2015)
- Favorite R&B Artist, People’s Choice Awards (2016)
- Best R&B/Urban Dance Track (“Can’t Feel My Face”), International Dance Music Awards (2016)