As of this writing, the dizzyingly talented R&B star has the No. 1 song in America ("The Hills.") He recently scored Spotify's official "song of summer," ("Can't Feel My Face"). Two weeks ago, he performed on Saturday Night Live for the first time. And he's dating one of the hottest young models in the game. But as the Weeknd gets set to embark on his first big arena tour, we thought we'd share these 10 things you should know.
For the bulk of his career, Tesfaye kept himself far removed from the spotlight, declining all interview requests, and building up an air of mystery. Why the reticence? "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." Part of that stemmed from shyness, part from doubt. As Tesfaye notes, "I thought I'd be a punk star—grow my hair out, acne on my face, super-fucking-skinny. I was looking at artists like Iggy Pop and the Ramones, or Afropunk. But you evolve and realize your potential. And then it's like, 'Fuck yeah. Let's go.'"
Inspired by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tesfaye has been growing out his signature hairstyle for four years, maintaining it with nothing more than an occasional hard shampoo. Among the things that it's been compared to: a tsunami, a rooster's comb, a double mullet (party in the front, party in the back), a cresting wave, the Elephant Man. Though the hair gives him neck pains when he sleeps, Tesfaye has no plans to do away with it anytime soon. Besides, it makes for a great conversation piece: At a Grammys party last year, Tesfaye found himself chatting with the current queen of pop, Taylor Swift, who spent the entirety of their conversation petting his hair. "I think she was just drawn to it—she must have been a little gone off a few drinks," Tesfaye told Rolling Stone. "And of course I'm not going to be like, 'Hey, can you stop?' I mean, it felt good! But when she started petting my hair, that's when I was like, 'I definitely need a drink.'"
Tesfaye has been romantically linked to 18-year-old model/reality-show spawn/Olympic hopeful Bella Hadid since last spring. Given how many of Tesfaye's lyrics focus on his bedroom prowess, his relationship with Hadid is refreshingly old-fashioned (he recently bought her a black Yorkie named Hendrix). Tesfaye lost his virginity at age 16 to an older girl at a college toga party and embarked on long road as a Lothario: "I don't want to sound like that guy where sex is not an obstacle. But I've had a lot of sex." In fact, he says that if he'd met Hadid two years ago, he would have been too caught up in the groupie lifestyle to pursue a relationship. Also, two years ago, Hadid was 16, so he probably shouldn't have been pursuing a relationship with her anyway.
The Weeknd first got the attention of the online music world when someone in Drake's camp posted three early tracks on his blog, and Tesfaye's career soared further when he appeared on his mentor's sophomore 2011 album, Take Care. "We're definitely a family," said Drake in an MTV interview. "It's a Toronto thing." Today, he says he has nothing but gratitude for Drake, whom he calls "my closest friend in the industry at that time." At the time, though, he resented that so many songs that he'd intended to release under his own name ended up on Drake's album. "I gave up almost half of my album," said Tesfaye. "It's hard. I will always be thankful—if it wasn't for the light he shined on me, who knows where I'd be. And everything happens for a reason."
According to a scathing Vice interview with Jeremy Rose, the Weeknd was initially a collaboration between him and Tesfaye, and they called themselves the Weekend. Tesfaye dropped the final "e" shortly after the two friends-of-friends parted company in 2010—which happened just as those three tracks, which they wrote together, were blowing up online. Of course, the success of Beauty Behind the Madness has proven that Tesfaye manages just fine on his own.
Tesfaye didn't make his big play for the pop-music crown until last year, when he was brought in to work on the Ariana Grande track "Love Me Harder" with Max Martin, the Swedish super-producer behind everything from "Baby One More Time" to "Since You've Been Gone" to much of Taylor Swift's 1989. From the beginning, Tesfaye had resisted selling out, but working with Martin helped him appreciate the challenge of pop music—and how much tougher it is to make than "cool" music. "His whole operation is just genius," Tesfaye said about Martin. "I was told he doesn't do this very much, but he would actually sit on the floor with us and come up with ideas. I feel like usually he'll collaborate, but he's not as passionate or as hands-on. I felt super-honored, you know? It was some real Michael-and-Quincy, John Lennon–and–Paul McCartney stuff."
Speaking of Michael and Quincy, one of the few times Tesfaye has found himself starstruck in the past couple of years was when he met Jones at the nightclub Drai's in Las Vegas. ''He knew about me!'' Tesfaye recounted recently. ''You couldn't wipe the smile off my face.'' If there's any artist to whom Tesfaye is frequently compared, it's Jackson, whose song "Dirty Diana" Tesfaye notoriously (and narcotically) covered. But the connection between the singers goes beyond falsetto vocals, chilly beats, and chart-topping success. "People forget—'We Are the World' is for Ethiopia," he told Rolling Stone. "At home, if it wasn't Ethiopian music, it was Michael. He was our icon."
Some fans claim that the "XO" in the Weeknd's "XO Crew" simply stands for hugs and kisses, while others claim the letters represent the drugs Ecstasy and oxycontin. Considering the ubiquity of drugs in his songs, the latter seems likely. Regardless, he and all of his regular collaborators have the letters XO at the end of their Twitter handles, and his fans regularly quote their motto "XO 'til we overdose." Tesfaye has described his early years living away from home in Toronto as "Kids without AIDS." Having first smoked weed at age 11, Tesfaye moved on to painkillers, Xanax, cocaine, mushrooms, and ketamine. "I never needed detox or anything," he said recently. "But I was addicted in the sense of 'Fuck, I don't want to spend this day without getting high.'"
After the somewhat disappointing release of his major-label debut, Kissland, Tesfaye was looking for a change of scenery and found it in L.A. Unfortunately, he insists the house he rents in the Hollywood Hills is haunted: "I've had sleep paralysis. I hear voices sometimes. I heard the Hills are over Indian burial ground. But maybe it's just the wind." Either way, when Tesfaye is in his current hometown these days, he checks into a hotel rather than take his chances with the ghosts.
Tesfaye's parents were born in Ethiopia, having lived through the Red Terror that swept the African nation in the wake of Emperor Haile Selassie's death. Not that Tesfaye heard much about it growing up in the secure confines of Toronto. "I remember hearing some stories from my uncles," Tesfaye recently told an interviewer. "But I don't think my mom wanted to tell those stories. I don't think Ethiopians want their kids to feel like Ethiopia is a bad place." Unlike the bad memories, the cuisine of Ethiopia stuck with him: "It's the best, man. But it's very fattening. I think I'm still burning off that fat, to be honest. For an Ethiopian mother, if you have a chubby kid, it means you're doing something good."
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