The #2 song in the country this week is “Can’t Feel My Face,” a pitch-perfect Michael Jackson homage co-produced by pop mastermind Max Martin. From its disco-funk liquid rhythm to its piercing falsetto hooks to its lovestruck subject matter, the song makes perfect sense as a hit single. The only thing weird about it is the man singing it, a man whose entire career used to be based on deep nihilism and extreme mystery. We are living in the strangest of all futures, the one in which the Weeknd is one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
Back in 2011, when a then-anonymous Abel Tesfaye kicked off his mixtape trilogy with a striking collection of music called House Of Balloons, he was at the forefront of a new wave of online cool. The Weeknd was a poster boy for R&B’s turn toward the dark, druggy, and experimental, offering up predatory come-ons over ominous synth swells and pitched-up Beach House samples. “Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye sang, leaving the rest to the most disturbing corners of your imagination. The project left a lot to the imagination, actually; like so many other musicians back then, Tesfaye attempted to cultivate mystique by withholding his identity. The shadowy-new-artist thing happened so much back then that it became a cliché, and the music industry has thankfully abandoned it for the most part, but in the Weeknd’s case it worked like magic. An undefined connection to Drake in his “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking/ Watch me take it” phase didn’t hurt, either.
Two more 2011 albums-disguised-as-mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence, further stoked Tesfaye’s momentum, but he didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Prominent guest spots on Drake’s “Crew Love” and Wiz Khalifa’s “Remember You” exported his nihilistic art-soul aesthetic to urban radio unaltered; they sounded more like Weeknd songs featuring Drake and Wiz Khalifa, and along with the minor success of House Of Ballons single “Wicked Games,” they suggested he could carve out a place in the R&B mainstream if he wanted it. But ater pummeling the public with three full-length releases in 2011, 2012 felt oddly uneventful in terms of new Weeknd material, a point that was driven home at the end of the year when, instead of releasing something new, Tesfaye put those free mixtapes on sale as a triple-album called Trilogy. In late summer 2013, when official debut album Kiss Land finally landed, replete with awkward title and goofy cover art, the Weeknd seemed like just another fad whose time had passed. While others such as Jeremih and Shlohmo were evolving his style, he was stagnating. The overwhelming feeling was, “We get it, dude. You are drowning your existential despair in hard drugs, illicit sex, and weightless sonic nightmarescapes. Got anything else?”
At least, that was the feeling among many of the early adopters suffering from Weeknd fatigue. As passé as Tesfaye’s shtick was becoming, Kiss Land was a major success, narrowly missing a #1 debut and going on to sell more than a quarter-million copies. The album opened further doors for Tesfaye, doors that inadvertently ended up giving his music the jolt it so desperately needed.
First came the Ariana Grande duet “Love Me Harder,” a saccharine and relatively upbeat sex ballad that, for all its flaws, at least marked a break from the Weeknd’s future-noir M.O. (Given Grande’s carefully cultivated innocent youthful image, that one carried some uncomfortable undertones for those previously familiar with the Weeknd.) “Love Me Harder” topped out at #7 on the Hot 100, giving Tesfaye his first top-10 hit and a foothold at pop radio. He quickly surpassed it with “Earned It,” a luxuriant, lounge-ready orchestral slow jam that rode its placement on the smash-hit Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack all the way to #3. “Earned It” was a perfect fit for Fifty Shades, tempering the Weeknd’s ominously shady sound in the same suburb-titillating way the movie softened BDSM. By repackaging Tesfaye’s dark sophistication as classy rather than edgy, it sealed his place in a pop upper echelon dominated by the likes of Sam Smith. Suddenly, this former internet art-star Lothario had become a true-blue celebrity and a surefire pop-radio hitmaker.
Throughout 2015, the Weeknd has continued to push further and further into the spotlight: In April, the Coachella organizers essentially scheduled him to headline over actual headliner Jack White; in June, Tesfaye was given the only musical performance at the Apple Music launch event; earlier this month, Taylor Swift brought him on stage to sing “Can’t Feel My Face” at one of her concerts; and as of this week, with “Can’t Feel My Face” at #2 and “The Hills” (a song decidedly in the old-school Weeknd wheelhouse) rising to #10, Tesfaye joins Swift and Meghan Trainor as the only artists this year to put two singles in the top 10 simultaneously.
He’s on the A-list now, and with the likes of Martin contributing to his upcoming Beauty Behind The Madness, he seems likely to remain there for the foreseeable future. In a summer that has also seen two of Diplo’s groups land top-10 singles — Jack Ü’s “Where Are You Now” and Major Lazer’s “Lean On” — Tesfaye’s surprising success is our latest reminder that today’s music internet echo-chamber fodder could be tomorrow’s big-budget pop enterprise. That’s an old lesson, and one that we’ve all learned to live with, but here’s one that’s a lot harder to swallow: That whole cultivating-anonymous-mystique thing really paid off in the long run, huh? Two thumbs up to the Weeknd for making pop radio a more interesting place, but if his success results in another wave of “mysterious” new talents, I’ve got a couple middle fingers for him too.
No doubt buoyed by the popularity of Furious 7, Tyrese scores his first #1 album this week. Black Rose enters at #1 with 77,000 equivalent units — a weak total for a #1 album, sure, but good enough to dominate a new release week lacking in heavy hitters (the period ranging from 7/10 to 7/16). Billboard notes that the singer/actor/former VJ’s previous peak was the #9 debut for 2011’s Open Invitation. Just below Tyrese is Taylor Swift, whose 1989 remains at #2 with 55,000 units. After 38 weeks, 1989 has yet to leave the top 10. After two weeks on top, Meek Mill’s Dreams Worth More Than Money drops to #3 with 53,000 — still very strong numbers for its third week on sale.
At #4 with 38,000 is the debut of Kidz Bop 29, continuing the series’ streak of top-10 debuts since Kidz Bop 18. Ed Sheeran’s x is at #5 with 34,000, then it’s the debut of Disney Channel-affiliated group R5’s Sometime Last Night at #6 with 31,000. The rest of the top 10: Sam Hunt’s Montevallo (#7, 30,000), Meghan Trainor’s Title (#8, 22,000), Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (#9, 20,000), and Maroon 5’s V (#10, 19,000).
OMI’s “Cheerleader” stays at #1 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week, but as I mentioned above, the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” is in hot pursuit at #2. “Can’t Feel My Face” is now his highest-charting single, beating out “Earned It,” which peaked at #3. Speaking of #3, that’s where Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s record-tying former #1 hit “See You Again” now resides. Billboard points out that the #4 through #8 spots remain locked in place from last week: Swift’s “Bad Blood,” Silento’s “Watch Me,” Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up And Dance,” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Major Lazer/DJ Snake/MØ’s “Lean On” climbs to #9, becoming the first top-10 hit for Major Lazer and MØ and the second for DJ Snake (after “Turn Down For What,” of course). The Weeknd’s “The Hills” closes out the top 10, giving Abel Tesfaye two top-10 hits.
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Run Away With Me”
Best album opener of the year, best pop song of the year, maybe best song of the year period. If this doesn’t hit at top-40 radio, I will stop trying to understand top-40 radio forever. That sax!
Black Eyed Peas – “Yesterday”
OK, so they stole Erykah Badu’s video concept. That’s no good. But I’m happy to see the Fergie-less Peas backing away from lowest-common-denominator pop and returning to some semblance of their hip-hop roots. “Yesterday” is a good song, and I never, ever expected it to be.
5 Seconds Of Summer – “She’s Kinda Hot”
Sounds like the Offspring… and not good Offspring. What a weird direction for these guys! I guess the late-’90s revival is on (see also: Twenty One Pilots).
Calvin Harris & Disciples – “How Deep Is Your Love”
“How Deep Is Your Love” is dark, sleek, and not at all what I was expecting from the next Calvin Harris single. It’s not a Bee-Gees cover or a Rapture cover, but it’s at least 80 percent as good as the Rapture song, which is really an achievement.
Zedd – “Papercut” (Feat. Troye Sivan)
Not sure the world needed a 7+ minute Zedd ballad — especially one that takes 5+ minutes to reach anything resembling a drop — but I do appreciate him veering from his formula for once.
Nico & Vinz – “That’s How You Know” (Feat. Kid Ink & Bebe Rexha)
Check out this blatant “FourFiveSeconds” rewrite that will inevitably become a smash hit. I do like the joke in the third verse + chorus about how Nico & Vinz failed to capitalize on the success of “Am I Wrong” and are stuck back in Norway from whence they came.
A Great Big World – “Hold Each Other” (Feat. Futuristic)
Speaking of presumed 2014 one-hit wonders, these are the guys who scored a hit last year with the Christina Aguilera-assisted power ballad “Say Something.” Their latest single isn’t as memorable — and it has a grotesque hip-hop guest verse reminiscent of “See You Again”-style Wiz Khalifa — but it’s being pitched as a “coming out” song for one of the members, who changed the lyric from “she” to “he” a la Frank Ocean.
The Chainsmokers – “Waterbed”
If “Roses” didn’t convince you to take these guys seriously, I’m not sure if anything will, but “Waterbed” is another exquisite piece of synthpop to bolster their reputation.
Luke Bryan – “Strip It Down”
I don’t know who decided a Luke Bryan sex slow jam was a good idea, but I’d fire that person.
Vance Joy – “Fire And The Flood”
Fleet Foxes may in fact be the most influential “rock” band of this decade, though you shouldn’t underestimate the deep impact of Damien Rice either.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Chris Brown is confused about why he’s stuck in the Philippines. [AP]
- Contrary to accusations, Taylor Swift is not responsible for the power outage at Washington D.C.’s baseball stadium. [Billboard]
- On Lip Sync Battle, Justin Bieber performed Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in costume and bit the head off a bat (not a real bat, alas). [MTV]
- In unrelated Bieber news, Argentina revoked a warrant for his arrest. [THR]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Yo I want in on this twitter Beef!! VMAs is the new WWF!! @edsheeran Fuck You!
— Bruno Mars (@BrunoMars) July 22, 2015
— Bruno Mars (@BrunoMars) July 22, 2015
That Cut deep..U always know how to sheer me to the core. I can't believe we're Sheeran this in public. How dare u! https://t.co/fdYOVnlScF
— Bruno Mars (@BrunoMars) July 22, 2015