This is the summer of the Weeknd. Look around, the signs are everywhere: In July, the 25-year-old Canadian singer performed his absurdly catchy hit "Can't Feel My Face" for 83,000 screaming Taylor Swift fans after she brought him out as a surprise guest at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. In August — by which time "Can't Feel My Face" had shot to Number One on the charts — Stevie Wonder sang a few bars of the song at a concert in New York's Central Park. Earlier this year, Katy Perry said his steamy single "Often" is her favorite song to have sex to. "I don't know if I'm on top of the world," says the Weeknd. "But I'm on top of my game, for sure."
It's past midnight in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighborhood, and he's hiding in his trailer on a break from an all-night video shoot. Outside, curious passersby — some Russian-accented locals, some teenage superfans — crane their necks for a glimpse of him. "It's hard to walk down the street now," he says, fiddling with five or six pairs of sunglasses on the table in front of him. "But I worked for that."
"Can't Feel My Face" is one of three Top Five smashes he's scored this year, along with the plush, romantic ballad "Earned It" and the stormy jam "The Hills." "He's absolutely one of the biggest artists out right now, and he's just getting going," says Sharon Dastur, senior vice president of programming at radio giant iHeartMedia, which has the Weeknd in rotation at pop and hip-hop stations. "Not a lot of artists hit Number One this quickly and navigate all those formats."
Dastur says the Weeknd's new album, Beauty Behind the Madness, made a big impression when he played it for iHeartMedia programmers and executives at a private listening party during the company's biannual Music Summit this month. (Actress-singer Hailee Steinfeld was there too.) Dastur expects the LP, due out August 28th, to generate enough hits for at least another year of heavy airplay: "It's a long-term project, without a doubt." She also notes the symbolic importance of Taylor Swift's co-sign at MetLife. "Taylor knows pop culture better than anyone," she says, "and you know the masses are looking to see who's up on stage with her."
A few years ago, pop domination was the last thing the Weeknd was aiming for. He kept his real name (Abel Tesfaye) and face hidden on his first releases in 2011 — a trio of dark, druggy R&B mixtapes that sounded like they'd been recorded toward the tail end of a True Detective orgy. When Republic Records senior vice president Nate Albert flew to Toronto that spring to court the Weeknd and his manager, they shut him down. "I thought there was no reason he couldn't end up being a big pop voice," says Albert. "But they had no interest."
After pursuing him for another year and a half, Albert — a rock lifer who played guitar in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones before becoming an A&R exec — was able to persuade the Weeknd to sign with Republic. But the singer's full-length debut, 2013's Kiss Land, stuck with the mixtapes' claustrophobic, hazy, defiantly un-pop sound. Even a guest verse from early supporter Drake couldn't get it to register with mainstream audiences. "Kiss Land wasn't about what people wanted to hear on the radio," the Weeknd admits now. "It was the state of mind I was in — introverted, like David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. You didn't know if you were hearing a chorus or a verse. It was just my thoughts." (Albert compares the album to Weezer's Pinkerton: "As hard as it was not to have the massive success he probably wanted, I think it galvanized his fan base.")
When Kiss Land stalled, the Weeknd fell into a creative rut. "I just kept getting more and more depressed," he says. He considered relocating from Toronto to Seattle in search of a "super-drugged-out Nirvana vibe." Instead, after writing and scrapping an album's worth of material, he started spending more time in Los Angeles and listening to his label. Republic got him a choice placement on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack with "Earned It" and set up a duet with Ariana Grande on her club-ready single "Love Me Harder," produced by synth-pop wizard Max Martin. "At first I was kind of iffy about it," the Weeknd says of the collaboration, which would have been unthinkable in the old days. "Five years ago? Definitely not. I was the young starving artist that wanted to do it all by myself."
"I was the young starving artist that wanted to do it all by myself."
But he and Martin hit it off. The unlikely pair reunited for "Can't Feel My Face," and he cites the Swedish maestro as a major influence on the rest of Beauty Behind the Madness, which also includes guest appearances from Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey. "At one point, I didn't care," the Weeknd says. "Now I want as many people to hear my music as possible."
Even so, he hasn't completely left his roots behind. On the new LP's "Tell Your Friends," a power ballad co-produced by Kanye West, the Weeknd paints a bleak picture of his misspent youth, singing about being broke and homeless, his nights filled with substance abuse, meaningless sex and petty theft. "As soon as I stepped foot in the city, it was a feeling I got addicted to," says the singer, who moved to downtown Toronto at 17 after being raised by a single mother in the suburbs. "Lights, no sleep — either you're going to make it or die trying."
There are hints of more recent trials on songs like "The Hills": "When I'm fucked up, that's the real me," he moans over industrial creep-show synths and processed screams. The song, whose title and lyrics nod to Wes Craven's 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes, is partly about the culture shock he experienced in L.A. in the past year. "I was working on this album in a world I'm not used to," he says. "You're sober. Then one day you want to have fun, and that darkness comes back — and the darkness feels good." He shakes his head. "It's crazy. People relate to that stuff."
The Weeknd says he sees no contradiction between that side of his personality and his bright, glossy radio hits. "I feel like I'm changing pop culture," he says. "Taylor Swift's audience can listen to me, but so can the street kids. I want to touch it all."