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.”
How did you give it to him? Was it just an instrumental?
Yeah, we were making the drum loop and...oh, man, I had smoked I don’t know how much weed. Even Drake, he came into that session and we were all smoked out. It was terrible how much weed smoke was in that room. I was surprised I could even hit a note. I had sung this melody—it wasn’t a hook, just an unfinished lyric. And he liked it so much, he was like, “I need to have this, man.... I know I’ve already taken ‘Shot for Me’ and ‘Crew Love’ and this and that.” And me, I was hungry at that time. I was like, “Dude, take anything.” At that point I was like, “Hell, yeah.”
In your mind, what was “The Ride” supposed to be?
There are two ways of making music for me. There’s a calculated route—like, I know exactly what I’m going to do with this song. And then there’s the free mind. That was one of the free-minded records. It was all subconscious. I’ll make the music first and loop it, and then I’ll go into the booth and start singing almost 45 minutes straight. And these are not words; this is gibberish. It’s a songwriter language. There are lyrics on Thursday, I don’t even know what the fuck I said. “Gone” was a complete freestyle.
I want to show the world that I can s**t out albums like nothing.
Isn’t that like eight minutes long?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. With me, everything is a blank canvas. I’m painting this canvas by whipping the colors. I want to show the world that I can shit out albums like nothing.
The song “Kiss Land” has a new level of musicality and thoughtfulness that seems apropos for your first major label release.
I’m all about evolution. I’m the first person to judge myself. I listen to my music and I’ll be like, “This is shit.” Everyone around me is like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
What are some flaws you saw in your past three releases?
Just technical, musical stuff. And, of course, writing. You’re bound to find flaws and repetition when you come out with three albums in one year. At that point I was very cavalier; I didn’t give a shit. Some people realize it and some don’t. Me, I’m very critical.
I’m not here to change or lie about what I’m going to do. What I sing about is what I sing about. But there’s a lot of cool twists with this album, because this album symbolizes everything that I’d never experienced in the past 21 years of my life. I’d never left Toronto. I’d driven to Montreal, but I’d never been on a plane before two or three years ago.
Wow. That’s crazy.
From when I was born to when I was 21, I never left Toronto. That’s why I’m such a city cat. Trilogy is my experiences in those four walls. Kiss Land is me doing the things I did in Trilogy in different settings. [Laughs.]
My favorite of the Trilogy set, which goes against conventional wisdom, is Echoes of Silence.
Really, the last one? Echoes of Silence was made in Montreal. I had a lot of darkness in that city.
My favorite song on that project is “Next.”
That’s an artist’s song. If you’re an artist, you can relate to that record. Especially if you’re in that hip-hop world, “Next” is for you.
It’s that balance of high and low. To start a song off, “She pops that pussy on a Monday.” Where is this going from there?
I’m a huge fan of R. Kelly’s. He’s a musical genius, and probably the most prolific artist of the generation before mine. Some of the lines he says, if you say them in a normal voice, it’s the most disgusting thing you could say to somebody. But I can say “Pussy-ass nigga” in the most elegant and sexiest way ever, and it’s accepted. If I can get away with singing that, I’m doing something right.
All that ignorance on my records—“When she put it in her mouth, she can’t seem to reach my…”—that’s me paying homage to R. Kelly, and even Prince to a certain extent. The things R. Kelly was saying were crazy. You can say it now and it’s nothing, but back then you couldn’t.
All that ignorance on my records—'When she put it in her mouth, she can’t seem to reach my…'—that’s me paying homage to R. Kelly, and even Prince to a certain extent.
Since Trilogy, you’ve made songs with Wiz, Juicy J...
—French Montana, Drake. They are all friends of mine. Every time Wiz came to Toronto, my friend would take me to his concerts and bring me backstage. To this day, he’s the realest dude ever. So when he asked me to work with him, I did it without hesitation.
When you do a feature for other artists, do you give them an entire song?
With “Crew Love,” it wasn’t like that. Like I said, that was my song. I had a hook and I had a second verse. And Drake heard it and he was like, “Fuck, man.”
There’s a second verse?
Yeah, there was a second verse on it.
You’ve got to play that for me!
I fucking hate that second verse. That was a complete freestyle as well. I’m glad Drake placed his vocals on it. That song was so special to him. I didn’t hear that verse until maybe four or five months after I gave it to him. Even with “The Zone,” I was scared I was going to have to put out Thursday before his verse came in because Drake takes his time. He makes sure that he says the right shit and his flow is on point.
It seems like your work on Take Care was similar to the way Kanye West enlisted Kid Cudi on 808s & Heartbreak.
Or when Jay-Z hit up Kanye for The Blueprint.
Do you think Drake tapped you to give Take Care that feel?
Yeah, he told me he wouldn’t be able to do the album without me. You can read it on the credits that he thanked me. I don’t know if that’s him being generous, but I gave him a lot of records. I made “Practice.”
What did you do on “Practice”?
That whole hook was me. That’s probably the only song I wrote for Take Care. The rest of it was just shit I was going to have for [House of Balloons]. He really wanted to incorporate my sound, which was inspired by his sound. It’s not like, “Oh, I had the ‘new sound.’” It was just easier for him to relate to me, because it was his sound with an edge. It was that Toronto sound. So yeah, you’re right. I feel like I could have been that for his album.
People think you guys aren’t cool with each other anymore.
No, that’s not true. Definitely not true. But it makes sense. The thing about Drake is I told him what my decisions were going to be. And he was down with it from the beginning.
You mean in terms of your label deal?
Everything. I told him from day one what my decision was going to be. I wasn’t going that route. I was going to go my own route. And he supported me.
I told Drake what my decisions were going to be. And he was down with it from the beginning.
So when you read things about how you two are not cool…
—he’s like me when it comes to shit like that, too. He loves reading that stuff.
You both just brush it off?
Of course. I don’t like to spoon-feed people. I don’t like to be like, “You know what? I’m going to let the world know that we’re cool. We’re going to take a picture together. Everyone’s cool.” It’s all about the mystery, and people like it. Shit’s WWE, man. It’s wrestling, you know what I mean?
The other rumor is that you two are PartyNextDoor.
[Laughs.] No, no, no, that’s not true at all. I never met him.
Where do you see yourself in the world of R&B?
The only thing R&B about my shit is the style of singing. My inspiration is R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Prince, for the vocals anyway. My production and songwriting, and the environment around those vocals are not inspired by R&B at all.
I heard Portishead drums on “Belong to the World.”
Yeah, that was the inspiration behind that. I wrote a letter to the producers of Portishead and let them know this album is inspired by them.
The entire Kiss Land album?
Most of it. I find a sound and run with it. It varies from Stevie Nicks to Genesis and Phil Collins. The production is very cinematic for me, and R&B was never cinematic like that.
Do you have a greater understanding of love on this album?
I don’t know. Like I said, a lot of it’s subconscious.
On “Belong to the World,” it sounds like you may have had a serious relationship.
“Belong to the World” is about falling in love with the wrong person. There are some songs where I talk about the same person, but I like to make every song about someone else. Thursday is a conceptual album. Whatever that situation was, I spent the whole album focusing on that situation.
Have you gone through heartbreak before?
I think I did. I’m not sure. Some people think they go through situations and then it hits them like a fucking brick. I hope that I fell in love and I hope that my heart was broken. Because if I didn’t, then I don’t know what I’m about to go through in the next 20 years of my life.
That’s what Kiss Land is to me, an environment that’s just honest fear. I don’t know who I am right now and I’m doing all these outlandish things in these settings that I’m not familiar with. Kiss Land is like a horror movie.
Last night in the studio you said Kiss Land was a ridiculous title.
Yeah, because Kiss Land symbolizes the tour life, but it’s a world that I created in my head. Just like House of Balloons symbolizes Toronto and my experiences there, but it’s a world that I created. When I think about Kiss Land, I think about a terrifying place. It’s a place I’ve never been to before that I’m very unfamiliar with.
A lot of it is inspired by filmmakers like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott, because they know how to capture fear. That’s what Kiss Land is to me, an environment that’s just honest fear. I don’t know who I am right now and I’m doing all these outlandish things in these settings that I’m not familiar with. To me, it’s the most terrifying thing ever. So when you hear the screams in the record and you hear all these horror references and you feel scared, listen to the music because I want you to feel what I’m feeling. Kiss Land is like a horror movie.
Holy shit. That’s the last thing you’d expect from the title.
I didn’t want to call it Dark World or something so generic. The title came from a conversation that I overheard and those words stuck out. Someone said, “Kiss Land” and I thought, “That’s going to be the title of my album.” It sounds so ridiculous. When I put [the title] out everyone was like, “What the hell? This is going to be corny. It’s going to be all lovey-dovey.”
People will say, “It’s a wrap; we lost him.”
But that’s what I want. I want them to be underwhelmed. I’m all about surprises. If you watch a horror movie and it’s called Kiss Land, it’s probably going to be the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen in your life.
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