The Weeknd’s latest project revisits the sounds of his earliest work, but can it have the same enigmatic effect now that Tesfaye is a global superstar?
The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) released his six track project, My Dear Melancholy, at the end of March this year without much pageantry: ‘Should we drop Friday? I’m indifferent to be honest’, said Tesfaye, referring to the EP via a text message that he screenshotted and uploaded to Instagram. This, evidently, was the apathetic reveal of new music to his nearly seventeen million followers.
Indifferent he may be, but The Weeknd’s presence in pop is very much undeniable; he has nearly forty million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. Although his initial release of mixtapes (2011), followed by his debut studio album Kiss Land (2013), garnered him a substantial amount of attention, it is only in the last few years that The Weeknd has skyrocketed to legitimate stardom.
When the commercially viable Fifty Shades of Grey film was released in 2015, The Weeknd provided us with Earned It, the sultry lead single from the film’s soundtrack. Thriving in the limelight Earned It generated (it peaked at Number Three in The Billboard Top 100 — The Weeknd’s highest charting single to that date), what followed was continual, monumental success in the form of certified pop banger, Can’t Feel My Face. With this impressive hit (Rolling Stone ranked it as the best song of 2015), The Weeknd scored his place amongst R&B royalty, propelled by his innovative pop sound to a new level of fame — something his previous work hadn’t quite managed to do. A chart-topping sensation, Abel solidified himself as a colossal force in mainstream pop, and his musical influence created a ripple effect across the R&B genre.
Unleashed off the back of his meteoric rise to fame, The Weeknd’s third studio album, Starboy (2016), debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. In retrospect, the album feels like a manifestation of The Weeknd’s eruption of success and ascension to bonafide celebrity status. Bursting with eighteen tracks, Starboy is an overcrowded saga of layered, electronic production and robust pop choruses, infused with Tesfaye’s usual lyrical subject matter. Although seemingly geared toward chart domination with a more commercial feel, Starboy is nonetheless an adventurous album in its experimentation of different musical styles. With so much unconfined energy on the loose across the album, it creates an almost disjointed effect. It conjures an impression of Tesfaye reaching out of his musical comfort zone to explore a wealth of musical expression and ‘pull out all the stops’ as it were. The result was a rather long winded and sometimes uneven body of work; one that laboriously strives to satisfy the masses. Amongst these masses, it was die-hard fans of The Weeknd’s earlier sound who may have had mixed opinions. Although Starboy was another huge success (it won Tesfaye a Grammy Award in 2018), it was a far cry from the unique dreampop qualities he developed on his original mixtapes at the beginning of his career.
When The Weeknd first edged onto the musical scene in 2011, it was with House of Balloons; a dark and edgy mixtape that sounded unlike anything that had preceded it. For some time, the identity of the man behind the music remained a mystery, and subsequently, this added fuel to the enigmatic fire this gloomy mixtape set ablaze across the internet. The music was a bleary-eyed fog of drug induced haziness, pierced by Tesfaye’s impressive falsettos. Upon listening to House of Balloons you are submerged in Tesfaye’s drug addled, party lifestyle, and consequently, the melancholic comedown that ensues. Initially available free of charge for fans online, House of Balloons felt like a true labour of love; an honest but bleak retelling of a taboo lifestyle, set to sonic R&B rhythms and narrated via the harmonies of the saddest guy at the party.
The Weeknd has come a long way since the release of his trilogy of mixtapes (Thursday and Echoes of Silence followed House of Balloons), and naturally, his sound has evolved. Still, his original sound is highly esteemed, particularly with those aforementioned die-hard fans who were, perhaps, the most excited at the announcement of the new EP last month. Upon My Dark Melancholy‘s release, it was apparent that The Weeknd had shunned the more commercial attributes of Starboy in favour of the darker, more brooding vibes that had saturated his earliest songs.
Fans were anticipating sadness; hoping for a depressed Tesfaye to reunite with his familiar sorrow and deliver us with more depressing anthems that we could drink heavily to. Instead, what was released was an inferior carbon copy of his previous work. What was once a groundbreaking and authentic style, now feels emulated and underwhelming. The lyrics on My Dear Melancholy, feel less believable than those of his mixtapes. If anything, both the lyrics and the production on the new release feel like The Weeknd’s most unadventurous work yet. Where his mixtapes felt like shameful confessions and regretful reflection, My Dear Melancholy, feels slightly whiney. Heartbreak or no heartbreak, for the most part at least, the lyrics feel tedious and the music uninteresting.
My Dear Melancholy, is a halfhearted endeavour, though admittedly not necessarily a bad six-track EP. It is refreshing to hear a more vulnerable side to Tesfaye, who seems to be singing of real hurt, albeit in a way in which he plays the victim. The songs are not bad, we just expected more from him. Here, The Weeknd is a victim of his own talent; it’s the comparisons to the moody magnificence of the Trilogy mixtapes that highlights My Dear Melancholy‘s flaws. On the artwork for the new EP, Tesfaye is quite literally veiled in mystery — harking back to his Trilogy days, even the red and black colour scheme is reminiscent of the Echoes of Silence cover art. The resemblance is uncanny, hinting at a return to the downbeat mystery of his first releases, yet the outcome leaves us nothing but deflated.