The Weeknd has always let his music do the talking—dark, debauched mixtapes that changed the sound of modern R&B and profoundly influenced Drake’s sophomore album, Take Care. Now, As Abel Tesfaye prepares his debut album, Kiss Land, he’s speaking out for the first time. Listen up.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2013 issue.
The Weeknd wants to be a star. Perhaps he’s given you another impression—because he’s never done an interview (until now) and he rarely poses for photos. But the 23-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer, born Abel Tesfaye in Scarborough, Ontario, doesn’t plan to languish in obscurity. Nor will he be one of those indie artists who wields tremendous influence but whose names are only known by “purists.” Fuck that.
The Weeknd’s plans are just as big, or bigger than, those of his peers and idols. But in order to accomplish them he must first master the art of stardom. Part of which means opening up to the media. The other parts—great music and live shows—he’s already got a handle on. His smoky, 3 a.m.-after-party-in-my-hotel-room debut, House of Balloons (released March 21, 2011), had fans and critics hailing him as one of R&B’s new torchbearers. The music caught the attention of another Canadian star by the name of Drake, who shared some of The Weeknd’s songs on his blog, invited him to perform on the first two OVO Fests, and enlisted the second-generation Ethiopian to work on his Grammy-winning sophomore album, Take Care.
The Weeknd closed out 2011 with two more stellar offerings via free download—Thursday and Echoes of Silence. He collected these, along with Balloons, as a three-disc album titled Trilogy after signing a joint venture deal with Universal Republic (not through OVO) in September 2012. Even though all three albums were available for free, Trilogy managed to move more than 300,000 copies.
The next test for The Weeknd will be his major label debut, Kiss Land. If the other three albums described life for a young man on the cusp of success, Kiss Land represents the thrill—and the horror—of tasting and savoring stardom.
Tesfaye knows the world is waiting to see if he can deliver a project anywhere near as good as his first ones. That’s why he’s been taking his time with the recording, honing in on the strengths and weaknesses of his past work. In his L.A. studio session there are no girls with their noses on his keyboard, no pills or weed scattered about—just The Weeknd in full go-mode, sipping Cabernet, perfecting drums and vocals. The next night, at the hotel restaurant where he and his XO crew are staying, he’s a little less at ease, but ready to speak his piece.
Why haven’t you done an interview until now?
I felt like I had nothing to say. I still feel I have nothing to say. I’m the most boring person to talk to.
So why now? Is your label pushing you to do press for the album?
No, labels always push. I mean, Trilogy was a rerelease, but they still said, “Maybe you should do some interviews.” Honestly, I want to do interviews now because it’s one thing that I haven’t mastered. Even Prince did interviews. Michael did interviews. And I can tell in the interviews they’re uncomfortable. Why are they doing this? Because they feel like they have to do it to be a complete artist. I felt like this was my time. And maybe I wouldn’t have done it if I thought you were an asshole. I probably would have been like, “Fuck this guy.”
Is the air of mystery intentional?
Yes and no. In the beginning, I was very insecure. I hated how I looked in pictures. I just fucking hated this shit, like, crop me out of this picture right now. I was very camera shy. People like hot girls, so I put my music to hot girls and it just became a trend. The whole “enigmatic artist” thing, I just ran with it. No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit. But you can’t escape the Internet. There are super fans, and I was really testing their patience. At the end of the day you can’t deny the music. That was my whole thing: I’m going to let the music speak for itself. I’ll show them that this is what I do. But I’m very good at letting shit slide. If I wasn’t…
In the beginning, I was very insecure. I hated how I looked in pictures... That was my whole thing: I'm going to let the music speak for itself.
—you’d go crazy.
I feel like I’m already crazy. I just wouldn’t be able to focus on my music. If I didn’t let shit slide, I’d probably still be working on Echoes of Silence right now. But, I know how to let go of bullshit. And I know how to let go of unmixed and unmastered records. But not anymore. To me, this is my first album. Kiss Land is definitely my first album.
A fresh start.
Yeah, that’s why I didn’t want to mix and master House of Balloons or Thursday or Echoes of Silence. I didn’t feel like they were my albums. Those were my mixtapes.
It was a hell of a mixtape.
Yeah, man. I just wanted to make the greatest mixtape of all time, that’s all. And if I didn’t, I definitely made the longest mixtape of all time. [Laughs.]
Which of the three resonates with you the most?
House of Balloons is the most important for me because I spent the most time on it. I didn’t have a deadline for that. As soon as I put House of Balloons out, I let the world know I’m coming out with two more albums this year, so I had my own little deadline. Before House of Balloons, it was all freedom.
House of Balloons was actually supposed to have more songs than it does. I had so many records left, and then Take Care came through. “Crew Love,” “Shot for Me,” and “The Ride” were supposed to be on House of Balloons. I wanted to come out with like 14 records. I felt like “The Ride” was the last one, and it wasn’t done yet. [Drake] heard it and he was like, “This shit’s crazy.”