So is this swearing or no swearing?” In a darkened soundstage on the outskirts of London, Abel Tesfaye is wondering if he can say “fuck” or not. Tesfaye, better known as breakout pop sensation the Weeknd, is at a rehearsal for Later...With Jools Holland, the BBC music show, about to soundcheck his smash hit “The Hills,” a four-minute horror-movie booty call featuring more than a dozen f-bombs. For Tesfaye, that’s relatively clean, but he knows the pensioners in Twickenham might disagree. So when the verdict comes back “no swearing,” he nods and smoothly pivots to a censored version — a small gesture that says a lot about the kind of professional he has become.
“The Hills” is currently enjoying its fourth straight week at Number One, a feat made even more impressive because it took the place of another Weeknd track, “Can’t Feel My Face” — Spotify’s official song of the summer, and the only song about cocaine ever to be lip-synced by Tom Cruise on network TV. Tesfaye is just the 12th artist in history to score back-to-back Number Ones, a group that includes Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Taylor Swift. His new album, Beauty Behind the Madness, has sold more than half a million copies in a couple of months, and he’s preparing to launch a national arena tour in November. “I’m still digesting it, to be honest with you,” Tesfaye says of his success. “But the screams keep getting louder, dude.”
Tesfaye comes over to say hi, dressed in black Levi’s and a Roots hoodie, his tsunami of hair piled high atop his head. “Sorry, I’m sick,” he says, as his handshake becomes a fist bump in midair. Since starting this promo tour a week ago, he’s been to Las Vegas, Paris, Berlin and now London. The cold caught up with him yesterday, during a signing for 500 squealing fans at the Oxford Circus HMV. (Overheard: “I wanted to hug him!” “You didn’t hug him? I kissed him!”)
Go behind the scenes of the Weeknd’s performance on Saturday Night Live in our exclusive mini-documentary below:
This scene would not have seemed possible in 2011, when the Weeknd appeared with a trio of cult-favorite mixtapes that established both his sonic template — drug-drenched, indie-rock-sampling, sex-dungeon R&B — and his mysterious, brooding persona. A press-shy Ethiopian kid from Toronto who has given only a handful of interviews, he has cultivated a near-mythical image as a bed-hopping, pill-popping, chart-topping cipher. “We live in an era when everything is so excessive, I think it’s refreshing for everybody to be like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?'” Tesfaye says. “I think that’s why my career is going to be so long: Because I haven’t given people everything.”