How The Weeknd Went Pop Without Selling Out

The Weeknd, a 25-year-old singer from a suburb of Toronto, Canada, has the No. 1 song right now. The Weeknd is music’s most interesting crossover act. Even with pop success, he stayed true to his independent roots.

The Weeknd used to make the craziest musical landscapes. His three mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, all reveal a sound much different than the approach The Weeknd takes on current pop hits.

Drake employed The Weeknd to help on 2011’s Take Care after The Weeknd’s early tracks lit up YouTube and Facebook. The Weeknd settled on signing with Republic Records after a bevy of record companies sought to win him over. But The Weeknd ignored most of them, and ignored all other types of attention.

Republic Records would go on to package The Weeknd’s three mixtapes and sell them as Trilogy. Trilogy went platinum. The Weeknd’s next album, Kiss Land, wouldn’t do so well. Sales didn’t reach 300,000 units. The Weeknd had to change.

That’s when The Weeknd’s record company helped him reinvent his sound. The Weeknd met with powerhouse pop producer Max Martin. The combination was magic. Besides holding the top spot with “Can’t Feel My Face” on the Billboard singles chart, The Weeknd has two other songs holding positions.

The Weeknd’s DIY sensibilities didn’t just vanish when faced with the possibility of leaving his success in the hands of Martin and his team. The Weeknd constantly challenged them, and wasn’t afraid to reject suggestions. The Weeknd stuck to his guns the whole way through the pop machine. The Weeknd now draws comparisons to Michael Jackson and other R&B legends.

The New York Times Magazine described The Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, and this marvelous working arrangement.

“Martin’s hit-­factory typically solicits little creative input from the talent, who show up when it’s time to sing. This process was alien to Tesfaye, who had always written his own lyrics and was unsure that he would be a good match for Grande’s good-girl gleam. When he saw the lyrics that were sent to him, he found them to be tepid. He rewrote his verse, recorded it and sent it back.

What could have been a contentious exchange was actually edifying for both parties: Martin liked Tesfaye’s changes and kept them; Tesfaye realized he could make sleek, accessible pop on his own terms.”

So The Weeknd’s success is no accident. It’s a position sought by all artists. The Weeknd keeps his creative integrity untarnished, yet has people who refine his sound into certified mass appeal.

[Photo by Michael Buckner / Getty Images]