As an asthmatic, Tesfaye has been taking extra precautions since the pandemic began. He works with a small group of people that includes photographer Nabil Elderkin and a few trusted affiliates and friends from his label, XO, all of whom get tested for Covid-19 every two weeks. In August, he celebrated the birthday of his Doberman, Caesar, with a cake for his “son” that he definitely didn’t bake himself. And he’s been watching movies — lots of movies, mostly ultraviolent Korean cinema. (The Wailing, a 2016 horror film about a mysterious plague, and I Saw the Devil, a 2010 action thriller about a man on a revenge mission, are two of his favorites.) He recently finished Waco and Unsolved Mysteries, among other Netflix and Hulu shows he’s been bingeing to pass the time. Sometimes he writes songs to the scenes and characters onscreen. “I’ll write about their relationship or something in a song,” he says. “It might never see the light of day. That’s an exercise. I love doing that.”
Popular on Rolling Stone
There’s been a lot of time to fill lately, ever since he had to postpone or cancel months of touring and other promotional plans meant to follow the release of his album. “I’ve been going kind of mad, actually,” he admits.
Truthfully, though, sheltering in place hasn’t been all that different from how he usually works. Tesfaye, who has called himself a “workaholic,” put together After Hours at studios in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and right here at home. It took two years, and he ended up building his most fully-realized world yet, an ambitious visual and musical cycle full of bruising fights, shady figures, dizzying neon lights, and inner demons. The druggy vibe and nihilistic lyrics of tracks like “Faith” and “Heartless” hearken back to a more turbulent time in his past, evoking his very public 2015 arrest for allegedly punching a Las Vegas cop, and assorted other benders.
To promote the album, he’s embraced a level of campiness he has only hinted at before, diving bloodied and bandaged nose-first into a spiraling, self-destructive character straight out of a David Lynch film. Every photo shoot, music video, and TV performance has been an extension of his fun-house-mirror world.
For Tesfaye, that immersive work scratched an itch that goes back to his earliest independent mixtapes, starting with 2011’s House of Balloons. The vision he brought to the photo shoots and music videos for those projects, which were compiled on 2012’s Trilogy after he signed with Republic Records, created a mystique that was central to his appeal at the start of his career. “I’ve always tried to do what I do with After Hours with every record I’ve ever done,” he says. “I just didn’t have the resources or the budget or the time to make them as cohesive and as singular as After Hours was visually.”
The result is an album that puts him in contention for the 2021 Grammy Awards in several top categories, and one he’s immensely proud of. “It might not be my best album,” he says. “It might not be what people gravitate towards the most in the future. Hopefully it is. But to me, it’s definitely my most perfect album. I could go back and listen to it and be like, ‘I’ve got no notes for this, really.’ ”
The world seems to agree on its perfection: After Hours is one of the past year’s biggest commercial smashes, by late August raking in 1.5 million album-equivalent units in the U.S. alone, according to Alpha Data, the company that powers the Rolling Stone charts. His chart-topping, Eighties-pop-inspired single “Blinding Lights” has been a fixture on the Rolling Stone Top 100 Songs chart since its release, and it’s reigned for months as one of the biggest songs on TikTok, the viral-video app that has become integral to pop success over the past two years. The song even spawned its own dance challenge, involving synchronized aerobic moves meant only for the very-coordinated. (Like many other 30-year-olds, Tesfaye says he will probably never learn the “Blinding Lights” dance.)
“We work really hard, like everyone else, to maintain that mystique and maintain our original sound, and still cross over and bring it with us,” he says. “Sometimes, your fucking stars just line up.”
Still, there’s a touch of frustration in his voice as he explains why After Hours’ runaway success hasn’t felt quite the same as what he experienced with 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness — his first true pop blockbuster, driven by the Max Martin-produced single “Can’t Feel My Face” — or 2016’s Starboy, when he teamed up with Daft Punk for an experimental pop journey. “I’ve been cooped up here for the last four months,” Tesfaye adds. “Usually you go to a club or you go driving. You hear [your music] on the radio. I really haven’t been able to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
Two years ago, Tesfaye released a surprise EP, My Dear Melancholy, that came across as a particularly dark project even by his standards, full of moody meditations that sounded like breakup songs. He headlined Coachella and began writing songs for his next full-length album. Then he decided to step on the brakes.
“I took time to live, and to live in New York,” he says. He’d always dreamed of living there, romanticizing the city his entire life. It felt even more special to give New York a try after years of being in the spotlight. On his After Hours track “Escape from LA,” he says his West Coast home base “will be the end of me.” New York was Tesfaye’s excuse to take a vacation from being the Weeknd, renting a TriBeCa penthouse and living off of the celebrity grid, for the kind of paparazzi-free privacy that’s more difficult in Los Angeles.
“I got to be a normal person — go to coffee shops, write, meet new people at the bar or in the streets, make new friendships,” he says wistfully. “I felt more normal in New York than I’ll ever do anywhere else.”
Instead of continuing work on the LP he’d started writing, he detoured and wrote a secretive screenplay that he refuses to discuss in detail — just one of several such projects he’s begun dreaming up since. “I can’t talk about it too much yet,” he says. “I really want it to be official.”
Tesfaye’s love of the movies has always been a big presence in his music, videos, and tours. In the visuals for After Hours, he references everything from Martin Scorsese’s dark 1985 comedy of the same name to Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown — all films that feature characters who get lost in their own lurid odysseys of sin, deceit, and excess.
In the middle of writing After Hours, he got a taste of what it’s like to be on someone else’s set when the Safdie brothers recruited him for a small part in 2019’s Uncut Gems, the buzzy, Oscar-robbed Adam Sandler action flick about a Diamond District jeweler with a gambling problem. Tesfaye played the 2010 version of himself: an enigmatic R&B singer on the rise whose backstage flirtation with the jeweler’s mistress prompts an onscreen fight between Tesfaye and Sandler. “After the fight, he would ask me if I was OK, and vice versa,” the singer says. “He was like an uncle. He’s a really caring guy.”
The real-life process of growing from the budding artist he plays in Uncut Gems to one of the world’s biggest pop stars hasn’t left much space for Tesfaye’s big-screen dreams. “This is my first time even opening up to anything, because I had to spend the last decade invested in this project, the Weeknd,” he says. “It really does consume me, so I’ve learned to step away from it a little bit, to miss it a little bit.”
In the past year, Tesfaye has also appeared on episodes of American Dad and Robot Chicken, two of his favorite animated TV series. He was particularly thrilled about American Dad, posting more on Instagram about his guest spot — in which he voiced an uptight, virginal cartoon version of himself — than he did about his actual album. (Admittedly, most of the posts were of the show’s resident alien, Roger, embodying each of the Weeknd’s album covers.)
“I’m an Adult Swim geek. I grew up on that,” he says. “In my dark times, they took me out of my head. [Appearing on those shows] was me saying, ‘Thank you for being there and making me laugh.’ Comedy’s always a big thing in my house.”
Still on his bucket list is a more universal rite of passage for musicians: a guest spot on The Simpsons, another balm he’s turned to throughout his life. But when it comes to any future onscreen roles, don’t expect the Weeknd to start showing up to auditions. He still wants to be the person in control, writing or even directing projects of his own.
He may not be the first pop star to dream of breaking into Hollywood, but he’s certainly one of its most fervent fanboys. “I just want to be a filmmaker,” Tesfaye says in earnest. “I want to make great cinema.”
As pandemic fears mounted in the U.S. in the lead-up to After Hours’ March 20th release date, the Weeknd became one of the few major artists to stick with a previously announced album schedule for this spring. According to him, he barely even considered pushing the album back. “We had to drop it,” he says. “Imagine holding onto that record till now. It would have been a nightmare. It would have eaten me alive.”
The risk of lower streaming numbers didn’t concern him. “We went against the grain, but I didn’t care,” he says. “I didn’t even give a fuck about first week. It was all about getting that music out.”
Before quarantine began, he had begun preproduction on the recently released video for “Snowchild,” working with Japan’s first black-owned anime studio, D’ART Shtajio — prefiguring many of his peers’ recent turns to animation instead of in-person shoots. He has treatments lined up for at least three more videos (“Too Late,” “Escape from LA,” and “Faith”), though it’s unclear when he’ll be able to film them. He’s already done enough socially distant photo shoots to know that it’s not for him. “It’s weird because the connection is not there,” says Tesfaye. “It’s hard to work with a photographer when his mouth is covered. You don’t really know what he’s saying. I’d rather just wait until it goes back to normal.”
As summer wanes, he’s begun to explore other possibilities for connecting with the world, like the TikTok-hosted virtual “experience” he offered fans in lieu of his live show. His focus as the year progresses is on building out the story of After Hours: a lonely, dangerous, never-ending night of debauchery and chaos that could end up feeling a bit too real for everyone isolating at home.
That hasn’t left him much time to listen to new music. Asked what he’s been listening to this year, he draws a blank. He’s rooting for Roddy Ricch and Megan Thee Stallion, though, and he empathizes with the countless artists who have struggled to get their careers off the ground this year.
“A lot of new artists, they need touring,” Tesfaye says, speaking as a pop elder. “My touring is what made me the Weeknd. It was hard to show to the execs — or just to the game — that the Weeknd is more than an underground sensation. You have to bring them to the fucking shows. You have to show 15,000 people singing every single word that’s not on the radio.”
Touring was also crucial in building up his confidence early on. In his underground-sensation days, Tesfaye shrouded himself in mystery, forgoing interviews and doing his best to avoid the spotlight his music was attracting. “I tell my friends all the time it feels like my career is just starting,” he says. “I feel like it took me 10 years to break out of that shell.”
While he was doing so, his sound became a palpable influence on heroes and peers, from Drake to Beyoncé — and all the while the Weeknd moved closer to pop’s center. “I’ve always been vocal about me being a pop star,” he adds. “I thought House of Balloons was pop.”
This past June, the Grammys renamed the Best Urban Contemporary Album category, in which Tesfaye has won two of his three Grammys, after Tyler, the Creator pointed out in January that it felt like a catchall for black artists making genre-bending music. “It was peculiar,” Tesfaye says of the category, which is now Progressive R&B. “Putting an album like Starboy and putting an album like Beauty Behind the Madness in the same category as some other artists, it’s not fair.” Both of those albums were, proudly, pop projects that ended up winning Grammys against artists as different from one another as Childish Gambino, Lianne La Havas, and SZA.
“R&B and black music is such a wide variety,” he adds. “If they put us all into one category, I still think it’s not fair. We’ll see how it goes.”
Tesfaye was watching closely as the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police helped prompt some much-needed music-industry reckoning. He donated $500,000 to provide legal aid and bail money for protesters as well as to the Black Lives Matter organization. He posted his receipts, and he called out his own industry to speak up for black lives after decades of profiting off of black talent — specifically naming Universal Music Group (which owns Republic), Sony, and Warner, as well as streaming services Spotify and Apple Music.
“I heard a lot of crickets,” Tesfaye says. “I just felt like, ‘You know what? I’m going to start this off. Let me just get the vibe going with this.’ I tagged everybody. I hit everybody up, too. It wasn’t just Instagram. I was like, ‘Let’s do this together for the community, for the culture. We need you guys right now.’”
The singer has kept that same energy as the year has progressed. His TikTok experience doubled as a fundraiser for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that aims to end mass incarceration in America; viewers raised $350,000. That same week, Tesfaye donated $300,000 to Global Aid for Lebanon, following the deadly explosion in Beirut.
As for other ways the industry can better support black artists, Tesfaye has only one piece of advice he stands by. “It’s not about the upfront money,” he says. “Make sure you own your music. That’s your soul, so make sure you own it. That’s all I can really say about that.”
He was smart enough to own his masters from the start, and through his XO label, which he founded in 2010 with his creative director, La Mar Taylor, he has also been able to uplift friends like Nav, Belly, and Black Atlass. If and when he makes his long-dreamed-of movie, that will be an XO project as well.
“It will always be something that we put our 110 percent on, whatever project it is,” he says. “If it’s time for film, then everybody will be focusing on film. If it’s time for Nav, everybody’s focusing on that. If it’s time for the Weeknd, everyone’s focusing on the Weeknd. We truly believe that an empire can only be great if the heart is in it, the soul is in it.”
The Weeknd’s empire could grow by one more album by the time life returns to normal: Lately, he’s begun producing some of the new songs he’s written out of a makeshift studio in his condo.
“I might have another album ready to go by the time this quarantine is over,” he says with the slightest smirk implied in his voice, as if threatening another inescapable hit. He still finds himself feeling hungry as an artist. It’s a drive he never wants to lose, which is why he’s spent his months at home doing songwriting exercises while marathoning Korean horror films.
“I’m guilty of wanting to outdo my last album,” he says. “But it’s never like, ‘I’ve got to do the same type of song.’ I’m so happy I’m not like that. My palette is so wide.”
Accordingly, he promises, the music he’s writing is in a whole different world from After Hours — a brand-new planet in the Weeknd Cinematic Universe. “I’m trying to find a perfect balance with the film and the music, and so far it’s going really well,” he says. “I think I might have cracked the code.”
This story appears in Rolling Stone’s new stand-alone 2021 Grammys preview issue, sent to music industry insiders this month.
Sign up to receive your free exclusive Grammy Preview magazine for next year