Complex Canada's 20 Best XO Songs

Between the Weeknd, Nav, Belly, 88Glam, and Black Atlass, XO has amassed a solid catalogue of bangers. Now that 'After Hours' is out, here are the 20 finest.

xo the weeknd belly nav

Image via Getty/Alexandra Milani

xo the weeknd belly nav

Time was when the Weeknd and his XO team were literally going hungry trying to make it in the music industry. Well, things done changed. What began as an unofficial imprint through which Abel Tesfaye released his original trilogy of mixtapes in 2011 (House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence) has transmogrified into a widely revered cultural empire—today XO is at once a record label, fashion mark, creative incubator, and symbol that can often be found tattooed on fans and strippers alike. The Weeknd's new album, After Hours, broke the record for most pre-saves in Apple Music history (over one million). It's safe to say that these days, XO is eating.

"Now I'm in Tribeca like I'm JAY-Z," Tesfaye croons on After Hours track "Snowchild." And if we're really gonna go there and place him in the same pantheon as Hov, then fuck it—we may as well consider XO his Roc Nation. Okay, so the Weeknd and his manager Amir "Cash" Esmailian haven't quite signed a Rihanna or J. Cole yet, but their roster is nonetheless impressive: they've got low-key one of the finest writers in hip-hop (Belly), the first Canadian-Indian rapper to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (Nav), one of the most exciting new duos in the game (88Glam), and a critically-acclaimed R&B visionary (Black Atlass). Hey, it's a solid start.

Still in its relatively nascent stages, XO Records has already amassed a mighty catalogue of bangers. Now that After Hours is out, let's take a look at the 20 best.

20. Black Atlass, “Fantasy"

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Album: Pain & Pleasure (2018)

Producer: Oliver Goldstein, Black Atlass

Alex Fleming, aka Black Atlass, went from recording in his Montreal bedroom to XO adjacent to officially joining the crew in 2018, drawing obvious comparisons to the Weeknd’s own moody R&B stylings. “Fantasy” makes that comp even more explicit, a dreamy, hypnotic track that’s totally on brand for XO. —Rick Mele

19. 88Glam, "Swim"

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Album: Close To Heaven Far From God (2020)

Producer: ForTheNight, 1K

For a song lamenting being hounded and exploited by craven fans and hangers-on, 88Glam’s “Swim,” the new single from their upcoming album Close to Heaven Far From God, is unexpectedly exquisite, with Derek Wise and 88 Camino rapping about their accomplishments over a delicate, blissful beat. That’s just another one of their much-touted luxuries. —Calum Marsh

18. “Gone,” The Weeknd

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Album: Thursday (2011)

Producer: Doc McKinney, Illangelo

Clocking in at a hefty 8:07, “Gone” definitely isn’t one of Abel’s more radio-friendly tracks. It’s the longest song in the Weeknd’s catalogue to date, first released on his sophomore mixtape Thursday, then remastered and re-released for XO’s Trilogy. So no, it’s not a casual listenone of those songs seemingly engineered for good headphones and a late night walk stumble, when you can really lean into its sludgy, freestyle vibe. Then, just when you think it’s done after winding down four minutes in, both Abel and “Gone” manage to power through and hit another gear for the big finish. —Rick Mele

17. Black Atlass, "Lie to Me"

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Album: Dream Awake (2020)

Producer: DANNYBOYSTYLES, Oligee

Black Atlass’ Dream Awake won’t be out for another month, but as the Montreal artist’s first new song since his breakout 2018 album Pain & Pleasure, “Lie to Me” is already reminding people what made XO’s newest member such an intriguing signing in the first place. It’s a plaintive, emotional ode to a rapidly deteriorating relationship (released, fittingly enough, on Valentine’s Day earlier this year). And while the lyrics on “Lie to Me” are fairly straightforward, that only serves to put Fleming’s impressive vocal prowess front and centre on the brooding, moody track—proving he’s much more than just Weeknd lite. —Rick Mele

16. The Weeknd, "After Hours"

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Album: After Hours (2020)

Producer: Illangelo, DaHeala, The Weeknd, Mario Winans

"No more daytime music," the Weeknd tweeted last year. And so, he's back to his nocturnal ways on "After Hours," the title track from his latest LP, which features a pulsating, ominous beat that sounds straight out of an illegal rave in an abandoned storage space somewhere in Toronto's west end. (That's all the info you're getting from me, narcs.) Yup, we get some vintage seedy, self-loathing Weeknd here, singing about "turning into the man I used to be." But whereas the Abel of yore got off on playing wicked games with scene girls, here he's showing deep regret for doing Bella a love interest dirty. Maturity, even. No games here, just an honest-to-god plea to be taken back with a promise that he'll change. Sure, he gets pretty on the nose, with lines like "This time, I'll never leave/I wanna share babies/Protection, we won't need." But don't act like you didn't say something similar last time you drunk dialed your ex. —Alex Nino Gheciu

15. Belly f/ Lil Wayne, "Barely Sober"

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Album: Another Day in Paradise (2016)

Producer: Ben Billions, Velous

Real ones know Ahmad Balshe, aka Belly, is XO's secret weapon. The Palestinian-Canadian rapper has some of the deftest penmanship in the game. Got doubts? Just check the credits on After Hours; dude co-wrote half the songs—which happen to be the best half of the album. "Barely Sober" is an excellent case study not only of his knack for writing bars, but melodies, too. You wouldn't think a refrain like "Oh my god, bitch, we barely ever sober" could have earworm potential, but lordy, it's so infectious even social distancing can't abate it. It also sets the perfect aura for Lil Wayne to jump in and lay waste to the track. Instantly repeatable. "Gotta bump it like some motherfuckin' eczema bumps," spits Weezy. Agreed. —Alex Nino Gheciu


14. The Weeknd f/ Drake, “The Zone”

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Album: Thursday (2011)

Producer: Doc McKinney, Illangelo

Given that his shout-out was the endorsement that made Abel Tesfaye an overnight sensation when his debut mixtape House of Balloons dropped in 2011, it was always only a matter of time before Drake appeared on a Weeknd song. Their first collaboration, “The Zone,” remains their best, thanks to Doc McKinney and Illangelo’s seductive, propulsive production, and one of Drake’s finest guest verses ever. “Man, if pole dancing’s an art, you know how many fucking artists I know?” Drake raps early in the verse, before dropping a nod to the collab that could be their motto: “That OVO and that XO/Your girlfriend at our next show/But it’s all good, don’t stress though.” —Calum Marsh

13. 88Glam f/ Nav, "Bali"

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Album: 88GLAM (2018)

Producer: AlexOnWeed, Villa Beatz

“Bali” put the Toronto duo of Derek Wise and 88 Camino on the map both at home and south of the border; after pursuing separate solo careers, the longtime friends teamed up for their eponymous mixtape, earning a pair of Juno nominations while going platinum. Boasting a catchy hook and standout verses, it’s a track that perfectly showcased the chemistry between Wise and Camino, with an assist from fellow labelmate Nav. Once XO co-founder/manager Cash directed the hit single’s music video, “Bali” officially marked 88Glam as up-and-comers to watch, and a key piece in the label’s growing roster. —Rick Mele

12. Belly f/ M.I.A. & Meek Mill, "Immigrant"

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Album: IMMIGRANT (2018)

Producer: Rex Kudo, DaHeala, The ANMLS

When Belly announced his second studio album, he wrote on Twitter, “With everything going on, I can’t sit by and say nothing. I decided to speak my truths.” IMMIGRANT’s title track sees the Palestine-born, Ottawa-raised rapper going after Trump’s deranged immigration policy, with help from two equally outspoken artists, M.I.A. and Meek Mill. It’s a song that’s very much a product of its timeMeek’s verse references his backing out of a White House prison reform event. With lyrics like “Lock our babies up and then they tell us that it's fake news,” it’s not exactly subtle, but these days? Fuck subtlety. —Rick Mele

11. Nav f/ The Weeknd, “Some Way”

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Album: NAV (2017)

Producer: Nav, Danny Boy Styles

Punjabi-Canadian rapper and R&B singer Nav made an auspicious debut with first single “Some Way,” a butter-smooth slow jam featuring an extended guest verse and chorus by labelmate Abel Tesfaye. A collaboration between Nav and the Weeknd—or as Nav himself puts it, unforgettably, “the brown boy and the Starboy on a track.” —Calum Marsh

10. The Weeknd f/ Daft Punk, “Starboy”

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Album: Starboy (2016)

Producer: Daft Punk, Doc McKinney, Cirkut

The first of two collaborations with French touch legends Daft Punk, the soaring, euphoric “Starboy,” the lead single from the album of the same name, represented a radical change for the Weeknd when it was released in 2016. Buoyed by Daft Punk’s trademark electronic brilliance, it was, understandably, his biggest hit to date. —Calum Marsh

9. 88Glam f/ Nav, "It's a Flex"

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Album: 88GLAM2 (2018)

Producer: Frost, Trouble, Money Muski

Rappers have been bragging about their wealth and style for about as long as rap has been a genre, but on “It’s a Flex,” 88Glam do it with undeniable panache. From glitter-trimmed pink socks by Gucci to two-tone Philippe Patek watches, the swag 88 Camino and Derek Wise boast about on the track is entirely their own, made all the more charming by how surprised they seem to have it. “Never had no credit/Now it’s corporate card my debit,” they declare, clearly savouring the thrill of having made it. They make you feel the fun of showing off. That’s the real flex. —Calum Marsh

8. Black Atlass - “If They Only Knew”

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Album: Pain & Pleasure (2018)

Producer: Black Atlass, Oliver Goldstein

With his plaintive, sultry R&B, Montreal’s Alexander Fleming, better known as Black Atlass, sounds at times uncannily like labelmate The Weeknd circa his first mixtapes in 2011—same fraught tension, same bewitching voice, same striking attitude. But while Abel Tesfaye took a sharp turn away from the aesthetic he invented soon after those early releases, Black Atlass continues to explore its frontiers, and with the gargantuan, vocoder-heavy “If They Only Knew,” he takes the sound to places The Weeknd never imagined. —Calum Marsh

7. Nav f/ Travis Scott, "Champion"

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Album: RECKLESS (2018)

Producer: Foreign Teck, Ozan Yildirim

After showing out on Travis Scott’s “Biebs in the Trap,” Nav saw Scott return the favour on "Champion." The result is the strongest track on the Rexdale rapper’s debut studio album, a swaggy trap hit celebrating luxury watches and private jets, the collab bringing out the best in the former SoundCloud star/producer-turned-XO signee. It also works quite nicely as a celebration song for the Raptors' first-ever NBA championship, released one year early. —Rick Mele

6. The Weeknd, "Snowchild"

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Album: After Hours (2020)

Producer: The Weeknd, Illangelo, DaHeala

The unexpected centerpiece of his latest album After Hours, “Snowchild” is the most original and surprising song the Weeknd’s written in years. It's part tender confessional, part touching ode to his amazing come-up in wintry Toronto, part sex-pun tour de force ("She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship/Futuristic sex give her Philip K. dick"). With co-writing credits from Belly (we're willing to bet he helped with this line: "I just signed a new deal with Mercedes/Got me movin' dirty like I'm Swayze") and some lush, intimate production by Illangelo and DaHeala, it finds XO firing on all cylinders, and the Weeknd at his most candid and emotional. For once, he doesn't even sound like the Weeknd—he sounds like Abel. —Calum Marsh

5. Nav f/ The Weeknd, "Price on My Head"

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Album: Bad Habits (2019)

Producer: AlexOnWeed, Derek Wise

In the video for Nav’s “Price on My Head,” Toronto is under siege, erupting in flames and mushroom clouds as rockets zoom by landmarks like the CN Tower. It’s telling, though, that although the entire XO crew turns up in the video—everyone from 88Glam to Cash makes a cameo—it’s not to band together to save the city but to continue partying as it burns. As Nav sees it, he and his labelmates aren’t exactly Toronto’s superheroes. They’re the guys who’ll keep making music to jam out to no matter what insanity (hell, even a global pandemic) happens to transpire. Keep in mind that XO started up just after Rob Ford became the mayor.

“Price on my head, got a price on my head,” the hook laments. “Night when I rest, with a knife by my bed.” Is it just paranoia, as Nav suggests, or are they really out here wanting Nav and the Weeknd dead? Chalk it up to Toronto’s trademark Tall Poppy Syndrome, but it’s reasonable to assume that people really do have a hard time in this city with the insane level of success guys like Nav and the Weeknd have managed to achieve—totally unprecedented for Canadians, even in the wake of international superstars like Drake. Well-founded or not, with “Price on My Head,” these anxieties found an ideal anthem. —Calum Marsh

4. The Weeknd, "The Morning"

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Album: House of Balloons (2011)

Producer: Doc McKinney, Illangelo

Back when the Weeknd's mystique was at an all-time high—when critics still thought he was "a group" and referred to his spectral, moody sound as "hipster R&B" (or, even more disgracefully, "PBR&B"), "The Morning" stood out as the anomaly in his budding catalogue. The warmest track on House of Balloons, it's got no dark, on-the-verge-of-OD'ing vibes within earshot; instead, it opens with serene, spacey synths, reverb-drenched guitar licks, and Abel soulfully intoning about "drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast." He's made it to sunrise and is kicking back at home, having left the sketchy after-hours club, well, probably an hour ago. And he's reflecting: on the codeine cups and the baddie of ill repute from the night before ("Ain't the kind of girl you'll be seeing in the morning"), but also on his aspirations. After all, he hasn't been couch surfing and making beats with friends just for kicks. "Cali is the mission," he sings.

And then the chorus hits, and when it does, it hits the spot better than all the codeine cups in the cosmos. "All that money, the money is the motive," Tesfaye sings. Forget PBR&B—it's one of the most blissful hooks in all of R&B, and our earliest glimpse at the Weeknd's preternatural pop intuition. From the moment the world heard this song, there was never any question he'd get to Cali, and make all that money. Abel, put in work. —Alex Nino Gheciu

3. Belly f/ The Weeknd, “Might Not”

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Album: Up For Days (2015)

Producer: Ben Billions

If The Weeknd’s House of Balloons mixtape set the XO template—odes to the party lifestyle tinged with melancholy and regret—Belly's “Might Not” pretty much inverted it from top to bottom. “The night’s too long/I took too much and I’ve gone too far/and I might not make it,” the Weekend himself sings on the hook, edging surprisingly dark for a song as upbeat and energetic as this. Belly, meanwhile, takes the sentiment much less seriously, literally laughing it off as he describes “gettin' hoes fired” for keeping them out too late and mixing drinks much too strong.

Still, Belly's contributions to the aforementioned XO template shouldn't be underestimated. "Took my niggas from the 401 to Pacific Coast," he spits on the track. Indeed, the MC's been the subtle ace up The Weeknd's sleeve for years, a frequent collaborator with co-writing credits on some of the starboy's biggest hits ("The Hills" to "Often"). Here, we get to hear the both of them—the XO nucleus—fully in their pocket, their chemistry palpable and undeniable. The majority of artists who make the trek from Toronto to L.A. might not make it, but these guys most definitely did. —Calum Marsh


2. The Weeknd, "Can't Feel My Face"

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Album: Beauty Behind the Madness (2015)

Producer: Max Martin, Ali Payimi

The Weeknd was never shy about his affinity for Michael Jackson (though he might be a bit shyer about it nowadays), so it was only a matter of time before he'd lean into it completely. Seeing Abel partner with pop hitmaker extraordinaire Max Martin to craft a sound that sees him going full MJ, “Can’t Feel My Face” was pretty much engineered to climb charts. Which is exactly what it did, becoming Tesfaye’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100. 

Easily the biggest of the five singles off Beauty Behind the Madness, the song is quintessential Weeknd: a perfectly crafted, irrepressibly catchy pop anthem… that also happens to be about doing coke. This is his world-conquering smash, and his next stage in the Pokémon evolution chain—when, beside Four-Octave Vocal Range and Nihilistic Brooding Aura, he added his most devastating move yet: Airwave-Dominating Pop Sensibility. It’s the moment the Weeknd officially crossed over, and a welcome reminder that superstardom wasn’t going to change him. —Rick Mele

1. The Weeknd, “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls”

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Album: House of Balloons (2011)

Producer: Doc McKinney, Illangelo

If any one track defined the sound of the Weeknd’s trailblazing, totally singular debut mixtape House of Balloons, it was “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” the almost seven-minute, two-part epic that became an instant after-party anthem when it was released in the spring of 2011. These back-to-back bangers perfectly encapsulated the aesthetic sensibility that Abel Tesfaye coined at the time all but single-handedlyan elusive, indelible style that laid bare the dark undertones of spending nights getting absolutely twisted on top-shelf cognac and coke of shady provenance. It’s a sound that would swiftly dominate the Weeknd’s native Toronto and far beyond, going on to influence an entire decade of moody hip-hop and melancholic R&B.

“If it hurts to breathe, open the window,” goes a haunting layer of backing vocals on the hook. “Oh, your mind wants to leave, but you can’t go.” It’s a disturbing sentiment that’s entirely typical of the album’s themes of desire and despair, of spending night after night partying and feeling trapped by the cycle. Tesfaye’s voice—simultaneously huge and ethereal—is the centerpiece of the song’s first half, bending and arching in and around the notes. But it’s the production, by Doc McKinney and Illangelo, that stands out in retrospect as the highlight, digging into the bleak but beautiful vibe that would soon become a fixture across the airwaves. —Calum Marsh

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