by Paul Casey
“I think you lost your morals, girl, but that’s okay ’cause you won’t need ’em where we’re going.”
- The Weeknd, Loft Music.
Abel Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd is responsible – along with Frank Ocean, The-Dream and Miguel – for transforming the genre of R&B into something that is resolutely modern, vital and forward thinking. From production to song writing, performance, concept and lyrics, R&B in 2020 is a genre that represents the cutting edge of popular music and artistry. No disrespect to the other artists mentioned above, but no one defines the new R&B – or noir R&B as I like to call it – quite like The Weeknd. The Weeknd’s career has veered from alternative to pop, to straight up R&B slowjams, but it has for the most part been music that is defined by a bleak, heartbreakingly beautiful and drug infused, sexual sound. The sense of existential dread runs through much of The Weeknd’s work, something that has resonated with me, the most of all elements of his music. The soundscape crafted by great talents like Doc McKinney, Illangelo, DannyBoyStyles, DaHeala and most recently folks like Metro Boomin and Gesaffelstein, has had a huge impact on the sound of R&B and music at large. When people like Beyonce are doing noir R&B on “Drunk in Love,” you know it has reached far and wide. (The Weeknd’s remix of “Drunk in Love” was the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, hard as fuck bit of work.)
“I turn the Ritz into a poor house
It’s like eviction number four now
Go ‘head and ash it on the floor now
Girl go ahead and show me how you go down
And I feel my whole body peaking
And I’m fucking anybody with they legs wide
Getting faded with some bitches from the West Side
East coast, nigga repping North Side
Never waste a hoe’s time, bitch I’m on my own time
Fuck a nigga co-sign
Always change my number and my phone line
Baby girl, I don’t lie
Used to have no money for a crib
Now my room service bill cost your whole life
If they try to stunt me, I go all out military
I’m camo’ed all out, like I’m in the military
I free up all my niggas, locked up in the penitentiary
‘Cause I’m always repping for that low life.”
Excess in all matters is perhaps partially in a desire for fun, but the deeper cause is to delay the inevitable; to deal with the oncoming of death and to push it to the back of the mind. Excess in sex is The Weeknd’s #1 occupation, even more so than mind altering substances. For in the orgasm there is a rush and a feeling of being alive that few things compare with. Not since R. Kelly and Prince, has someone expressed so purely, audaciously, and in utterly seductive ways, the nature of physical love. Prince could sometimes be dark in his music, but only really through the guise of his alter-ego, Camille. And even then there was a perverse kind of charm and happiness to Camille – especially on songs like “Good Love” – where as with The Weeknd at his most sexual, there is only darkness and a bleak, hopeless view of the world.
His work is not excessive, it is about excess. It is about the need to obliterate your ability to feel pain, to try to survive in this world of suffering and misery, through being close to another human body. You know he is, like Peaches said some time ago, fucking the pain away. This is not to say that The Weeknd doesn’t write about love – he does, very well – but ultimately I don’t think his music has a firm belief that true, life long love exists. The idea of love certainly does, but real honest to goodness love for life? Just listen to the knock out, on the floor, beautiful “Call Out My Name” and hear where love gets you.
The defining song of The Weeknd’s view of love – oe lack thereof – is “Belong To The World” on his 2013 masterpiece, Kiss Land. Here Abel expresses the need to objectify, to reduce all human encounters to numb, emotionless things. “I’m not a fool, I’m just lifeless too.” For to feel, to truly feel, would surely be the end of him. The horror of this view is far reaching and unsettling to the optimist, which I would like to be, but am certainly not. It is of course not politically/morally fashionable for an individual to so utterly reject the notion that women should not be reduced to such base, animalistic states, especially in such a celebratory manner. Much the same objections were raised when Michael Jackson released “Dirty Diana”. This is not about the wish to reduce the female gender to such a state, but to make a deeper philosophical point about the way in which we hurt ourselves, and others, through our fear of putting ourselves out there in the open. Not just through the clothes we wear, or the job we have, or how we can get a damn fine mortgage for kids and family, but expressing our true selves with our heart on the line.
This is even more true for people who are a minority, who are at risk of severe social penalties should they reveal their true selves. Gay people, bi-sexual people, transgender people all have a huge amount on the line should they step out and be counted and communicate their love. The world is still considerably hostile, in spite of much progress in some parts of the world. To be able to be in relationship where there is no high stakes emotional/spritual risk, where all you have to do is fuck and sleep, well that is sometimes the best way to go.
One should also consider the idea of dangerous sexuality in 2020, especially when it is coming from a black man in the Western world. The Weeknd can be sensual, it is true, but he is also coarse and aggressive. This plays into the fears of white Christian sorts who are in constant worry over the fear of their daughters being raped by a dangerous animal AKA how they see a Black man. So it may be said that it is almost certain that many of The Weeknd’s lyrics are not intended as a lesson in ideal sexual behavior or indeed an endorsement of same. It is from the lineage of Prince, and there is a considerable element of The Weeknd being a dark reflection of Abel Tesfaye. The Weeknd’s music is a horrific distortion of our own capacity to do evil, which is why I call it noir R&B, to do just about anything to find peace in this world.
“Two puffs for the lady who be down for that
Bring your own stash of the greatest, trade it
Roll a dub, burn a dub, cough a dub, taste it
Then watch us chase it
With a handful of pills, no chasers
Jaw clenching on some super-sized papers
And she bad and her head bad
Escaping, her van is a Wonderland
And it’s half-past six
Read skies ’cause time don’t exist
But when the stars shine back to the crib
Superstar lines back at the crib
And we can test out the tables
Got some brand new tables
All glass and it’s four feet wide
But it’s a must to get us ten feet high
She give me sex in a handbag
I get her wetter than a wet nap
And no closed doors
So I listen to her moans echo
“I heard he do drugs now”
You heard wrong, I been on it for a minute
We just never act a fool
That’s just how we fuckin’ live it
And when we act a fool
It’s probably ’cause we mixed it .”
Anyone who has listened to Lou Reed knows that drugs have long been a staple of rock music, but it was fairly unusual when they became a defining element of the new R&B. Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” on his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra (2010), is in many ways the defining song in this regard, preceding The Weeknd and many others in solidifying the importance of mind altering, emotionally and physically numbing substances to the new R&B. In Ocean’s song, a connection is drawn between the state of R&B in 2010 – a genre on the ropes in terms of relevance – and the necessity of drugs in that environment to endure the hardships of life. The lack of real emotion and originality – a world deadened by autotune, plastic surgery and heartless sex – coupled with a severe sense of existential crisis, led in a paradoxical kind of way to R&B becoming arguably the most vital and artistically powerful genre in modern music.
“I think I started somethin’, I got what I wanted
Did didn’t I can’t feel nothin’, superhuman
Even when I’m fuckin’ Viagra poppin’, every single record autotunin’
Zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch corrected, computed emotion.”
“Novocaine, baby, baby, Novocaine, baby, I want you
Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb
Love me now, when I’m gone, love me none
Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb.”
If it was Frank Ocean who started this vital element of the new R&B however, it was The Weeknd who cemented it and perfected its thematic and artistic place in the genre. The horror of living in the early 21st century is so unbearable that one needs to find something, anything to endure it. One hopes that Abel Tesfaye is not as reckless as his persona, given the sudden deaths of more than a couple of young, talented artists, most recently Juice WRLD, who have died of drug related issues.
“Getting sober for a day, got me feeling too low
They tryna make me slow down, tryna tell me how to live
I’m about to lose control (lose control)
Well they can watch me fuck it up all in one night
I’m in my city in the summer, camo’d out
Leather booted, kissing bitches in the club.”
The bleakness and hopelessness that runs through The Weeknd’s music, old, middle and recent, is often overpowering, as is the grotesque images of debauchery, perversion and sexual aggression. That The Weeknd does not get an easy time from… ahem…”woke culture” is not surprising. Fucking gay women straight – something that Prince also wrote about on “Bambi” in 1979 – sharing women with his friends and making “all of dem swallow.” One should not be confused however that this is meant at any point to be an endorsement of living like this. This is horror and this is noir. As Abel said in an interview with Complex Magazine some years back, “this is some villain shit.” As he sang on Kiss Land, “This ain’t nothing to relate to.” This is a Gonzo distortion, an expression of all the evil, twisted shit that goes through a mind as a result of the relentless, horrific nature of living in the modern world. This is American Psycho and Halloween.
“You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug, especially when it’s waving a razor sharp hunting knife in your eye. There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge.” – Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Weeknd’s two recent singles, “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights,” have been heavily inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and by extension Terry Gilliam’s superb adaptation of that seminal book of journalistic fiction. “Heartless” is a high energy, coarse as fuck song that screams noir R&B, but it is “Blinding Lights” that is the more interesting of the two. “Blinding Lights” sounds in every way like a radio friendly single, recalling a-ha’s “Take On Me,” which of course it is. The contrast between the song though and the video, expresses something that is worth examining in the music of The Weeknd: his capacity for duality. The exterior can seem normal, happy, moral. Underneath, like the ear in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, there are hidden depths of depravity; evidence of a tortured soul. Those who think that The Weeknd abandoned the horror and noir elements of his early work are considerably off target. It just transformed. In a way, the subversive nature of getting into young and impressionable people’s ears – especially those of the white, middle class and christian lot – with a sweet and catchy pop song, only to then introduce them to hard drugs and perverted sex…well, it is even more an expression of horror than anything on Trilogy, in this fan’s opinion.
“And I don’t got any friends,
I got XO in my bloodwork and I’m posted up down in Florida,
Ft. Lauderdale to that MIA
Cold drinks with Grand Marnier
To the break of dawn, Kahlua milk,
White Russian when the sun hits,
White Russians with tongue tricks
I like the feeling of tongue rings,
She like the way my whole tongue flip,
She grind hard for tuition,
She grind hard ’til her teeth chip
I make her hide it with gold grills,
I make her suck it with gold grills,
In the back room of the VIP, she don’t ever sleep This ain’t nothing to relate to
This ain’t nothing to relate to
This ain’t nothing to relate to
This ain’t nothing to relate to
Even if you tried,
You tried, you tried
And you tried
You tried, you tried
And you tried
You tried, you tried
And you tried
“You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” – John Huston, Chinatown.
On Kiss Land, The Weeknd’s 2013 masterpiece, the artist lays out a manifesto that covers all of his music, past, present and future. This is a world of alienation, of disconnected and emotionally impaired people. To steel oneself to the pain of living, being transformed into something inhuman seems to be essential. If you fell in love, would you even know it? Should we simply settle for people being together who are similarly handicapped in having no emotions? On “Belong To the World,” The Weeknd sings of finding such a woman. A woman who sells herself to the highest bidder, whom the artist feels the need to “mistreat you, cause you belong to the world, and oh girl, I want to embrace you, domesticate you, but you belong to the world.” Some readings of the song, and the album, profoundly misunderstood its beauty and meaning. “I’m not a fool, I just love that you’re dead inside.” This is not a song which seeks to put a negative, misogynistic framework on life. This is a song about embracing the darkness in the soul, the hollow place where your heart should be, and in finding one who suffers in the same way. For some this kind of music is depressing, but for me, and it must be said, many others, it is paradoxically life affirming. By embracing the horror inherent in existing in 2020, we free ourselves from the fear of never attaining the white picket fence and a family car and casual self-deception at the lack of meaning in it all.
This bleak view of things is what separates The Weeknd from the music of people like R. Kelly – who was a huge influence on Abel – and more traditional, less explicit R&B and Soul like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. The Weeknd still has slow jams, and still has powerful and beautiful songs, but underneath it all is this bubbling tension that is fit to explode at any moment, tearing the singer’s life apart, and whomever is unfortunate enough to care for him. This tension and the context of even the lighter, more pop based stuff, in relation to the rest of the album, means that even at his most accessible, Abel is presenting a view of life that is desperately sad, fragile, and ultimately meaningless. There are some comparisons to be made between The Weeknd as a character and horror icons like Dracula, especially as portrayed by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation. He is a monster, yes, that cannot be denied. But his is also a deeply tragic character, who is driven by love. An unconventional love perhaps, but love nonetheless.
Take the song “Call Out My Name” from the superb album My Dear Melancholy, and hear a story of heartbreak that is just as powerful as “Wicked Games” from House of Balloons. In this writer’s opinion, “Call Out My Name” does an even better job at defining the sound of The Weeknd, and the reason why the tone and atmosphere present is so unlike any other person working in music, even though many have tried.
It is the small horrors of life that are often the most resonant. The creeping realization that yes, we will die. It is the only thing we are guaranteed to do. The irony of this horror of course is that it is only while alive that we are able to fear death. My Dear Melancholy, a concentrated effort to push forward the horror noir R&B that The Weeknd is known for, is as good as his best. “Try Me” and “Wasted Times,” along with the previously mentioned “Call Out My Name,” are superb bits of production, song writing and performance. Abel sings on Wasted Times, “I don’t want to wake up, I don’t want to wake up, if you ain’t laying next to me.” He only seems to be able to appreciate love in retrospect, something that many have felt. Is he able to hold on to it and feel it when he has it? We think, probably not. My Dear Melancholy, echoes the mood of Trilogy and Kiss Land but also fits in very well beside Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy. That feeling, that seems on the edge of your experience of reality/unreality, always threatening to tip over and spill into your actions, causing yourself great harm. The fear of never coming back again. To lose yourself so completely in the fear and rage that you cease to be yourself. As Rust Cohle from True Detective might put it, “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.”
The Weeknd is then a purveyor of powerful music that examines a severe existential crisis; the horrors that come along every day, threatening to erase us from existence. Through excess, we seek to dampen down the feeling, the knowledge that we will pretty soon be nothing at all. By reminding oneself of the fragility of life, whether through copious drugs or mindless, vicious sex, we seem to delay the inevitable. And our love of The Weeknd’s music helps those of us less built for that fast and dangerous life, to experience a little piece of it, so that we might find a hidden truth and find peace. The Weeknd is the best person making music today, and is a talent without peers. His music, whether classified as alternative R&B or pop, is remarkable, beautiful and unusually life affirming in a roundabout way. If you have not heard his music, I encourage you to do so without delay. I include a link to a rather good playlist below to help you on your way. XO.
Thanks so much for reading. The Weeknd’s latest release,After Hours, is available wherever you like to buy or download your music. Check it out and share this article with your horror loving friends! Follow creepylovely on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you would like to write for us just shoot us a private message or DM on social media. Stay lovely! Stay creepy!