By Candace McDuffie
The very first image in The Weeknd’s cinematic music video for “Blinding Lights” — one of the lead singles from his forthcoming new album, After Hours — is a harrowing one: We see the singer laughing cryptically with a mouth spewing blood. It’s the result of a brutal assault following a chaotic night in Las Vegas that he practically celebrates and is symbolic of his latest creative phase. It’s also a far cry from when the singer, born Abel Tesfaye, was cloaked in anonymity back in 2011, just as he was starting out on his musical journey.
That year, an appearance on Drake’s Take Care along with the release of three mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence) made the world enamored with the crooner whose vocals were sumptuous and hypnotizing, whose lyricism was tawdry and formidable. The Weeknd’s debut 2013 album, Kiss Land, finally put a proper face on a persona cloaked in obscurity, one that became a supernova pop star just a few years later.
Despite the accolades, the fame and the fortune, The Weeknd has used his After Hours era to lean into the most exaggerated and reckless version of himself yet (his cameo in the film Uncut Gems last year — where, as himself, he fights Adam Sandler’s character — is proof of this). His new After Hours persona is mesmerizing, decadent, and cartoonish — the perfect way to recapture the mystery that kicked off his career. It’s in the “Blinding Lights” video, his maniacal After Hours short film, and even in his recent late-night performances. But his journey to this point has been tracked through his visual iconography all along. Below, ahead of After Hours dropping on Friday (March 20), we track that evolution.
The Weeknd’s 2012 debut single “Wicked Games” painted the perfect picture of his minimalist ambitions. The slinky and sexy House of Balloons ballad came with simple yet intriguing visuals: The singer, showing off his signature hairstyle, belts out lines like “Get me off of this / I need confidence in myself” as a model donning nothing but a trench coat seductively dances with a shadow that entirely envelops him. His mysterious aura was not debunked; instead, the black-and-white clip added to the melodrama.
Earning It, One Look At A Time
“Earned It,” the theme song for the 2015 erotic film Fifty Shades of Grey, challenged The Weeknd to add a mainstream luster to his raunchy brand of R&B. The song was wildly successful and garnered the singer his first Billboard top 10 single as well as his first Academy Award nomination. In the video, The Weeknd relishes his voyeurism as he watches the movie’s star Dakota Johnson suspended from a rope harness (which piques the singer’s interest). Although the song magnified his popularity, its video served as a euphemism for his approach to the spotlight — inevitably consumed by it, but wary at the same time.
A Horror Icon
Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd’s sophomore album, was an exhilarating thrill ride that capitalized on the singer’s hollowness and proclivity for darkness. “The Hills” — and the visuals that went with it — zeroed in on this thematic horror. At the very start of the video, The Weeknd, his face covered in blood, narrowly escapes a devastating car crash alongside a supermodel passenger. They’re infuriated by their brush with death. As he walks away from the exploding vehicle, the lines he recites are just as volatile: “Always tryna send me off to rehab / Drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf / I’m just tryna live life for the moment / And all these motherfuckers want a relapse.” By the end of “The Hills,” we see The Weeknd, pop star, make his way to an eerie mansion, which ultimately leaves the audience with more questions than answers and shows us that he knows how to conjure suspense with the best of them.
The title track and first single from The Weeknd’s third studio album was a bold one of reinvention. A boost from Daft Punk finds him experimenting with a more electronic and synth-driven sound; in the 2016 video, the new, more reckless and shorn Weeknd suffocates the old Weeknd, recognizable by his illustrious coif. Armed with a neon-lit cross, the new version goes on a path of destruction and uses it to annihilate various awards he’s accumulated over the years. “Starboy” wasn’t just about rejecting The Weeknd’s old persona: It was about completely abandoning it in favor of that of an oversized egomaniac.
Heartless After Dark
By late 2019, The Weeknd had donned yet another persona, one that sports a red blazer, dark shades, and a brash attitude. “Heartless,” the first single and video from After Hours, showcases The Weeknd at his most theatrical, lost in Vegas, drinking, gambling, and licking a toad to gain all of its hallucinogenic effects. This is the most outlandish side of the singer we’ve seen yet. He is completely out of control, yet delights in the debauchery. Under his most recent guise, it’s become clear that no one can determine who The Weeknd really is — and for him, that’s simply part of the ongoing mystery.