Amid a tonal shift and a new look, we examine what The Weeknd's "Heartless" and "Blinding Lights" represent going forward.
Although we received a project from him in 2018, the past year has felt like a long and winding road for The Weeknd’s fans and, by all accounts, the artist himself. Left despondent by his high-profile love affairs imploding before the world’s eyes, his March EP My Dear Melancholy saw Abel Tesfaye put himself through the emotional wringer in a way that didn’t leave room for the inward-facing escapism of the past. Captured in the He Was Never There, Docupoem that chronicled the project’s construction, the tone, much like the EP itself, was mournful and haunted by thoughts of what could’ve been.
The Weeknd with ex-girlfriend Bella Hadid - Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
Met with more of a reserved response than the typical unadulterated praise that past work has received, the restraint he displayed on this monument to despair left many wondering where Abel— one of the most innovative and influential artists of the past decade— would go from there.
As his life was thrown into disarray, sadness became the prevailing state of mind and this bled directly into his music. Even causing some of his coveted material to vanish into the ether.
“Prior to Melancholy, I had a whole album written, done,” Tesfaye told Time. “Which wasn’t melancholy at all because it was a different time in my life. It was very upbeat— it was beautiful… I don’t want to perform something that I don’t feel”
Content in the knowledge that the album would “never” see the light of day, The Weeknd excised his sense of longing once more when he reunited with Gesaffelstein on the dense electronica of “Lost In The Fire.” Then like that, he was gone.
Eked out in succinct tweets that ranged from a declaration of “Album Mode Full Effect” to cinematic shots of the horizon to ambiguous claims that he was “listening back for notes” in October, the King Of The Fall then threw his audience another visual plot device to pour over when he unveiled a new look. Sporting an aesthetic that lands somewhere between Off-The-Wall era Michael Jackson and Morris Day at the height of The Time’s visibility, The Weeknd embracing a moustache and sharp formal wear left fans wondering why he’d abandoned the almost omni-present black jackets and denim. But as forums and fansites cobbled together clues, it all came to a head as Tesfaye headed to Twitter and prefaced the next evolution of the man we’d come to know as The Weeknd: “TONIGHT WE START A BRAIN MELTING PSYCHOTIC CHAPTER LET’S GOOOO.”
The Weeknd debuts his mustache at the Toronto International Film Festival - Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
And off the strength of what we’ve heard and seen to date, this seems like a fitting synopsis.
Bolting the previous chapter shut once and for all, the Toronto native provided us with a two-stage rollout for his rebirth. First came a Mercedes Benz advert that gave us a fleeting glimpse into what was to come by previewing a track known as “Blinding Lights.” Awarding us little more than a minute’s worth of a snippet, its 80’s indebted synth-pop sound represents one of the most unrelentingly glossy things he’s ever produced. Although this would’ve been enough to stoke anticipation for Chapter VI, it turned out this was simply the calm before the storm.
Brought to life with the aid of Illangelo and Metro Boomin, his new single “Heartless” is a maximal take on the classic Weeknd sound, complete with reverberating bass, sirens and a real mean streak in its lyricism; “Never need a bitch, I'mâ whatâ a bitch needâ ” and “sellin' dreams to these girls with their guard down,” are two choice examples. Delivering a lurid ode to emotional apathy directly after a record that was so tied to the deep-seated wounds of a relationship seems like a premeditated way to signal a new beginning,. But in many ways, this is a regression towards the Abel of old. Elevated by his unmistakable vocal style, the track is littered with allusions to the rampant drug use that had been so persistent in his early work. Driven by a “Tesla Pill” and amphetamines, “Heartless” sees Abel paint a picture of a man who knows his life is spinning out of control but is incapable of change.
Sonically disorienting by design, the cover art and each accompanying image that’s been uploaded on his recently recommenced Instagram feed is also somewhat warped and unfocused, giving the perception that he’s hurtling through life so fast that he can’t be accurately captured for posterity.
Yet while The Weeknd dabbling in narcotics and unchecked lust is nothing new, the real question is what purpose a return to these themes serves in a post-Melancholy world.
“The mind of a 19-year-old is very different from the mind of a 26-year-old”, Abel told The Guardian in a 2016 interview. “You grow. You get into better relationships. You experience more, meet more people, better people. But when you’re in a dark hole, at an earlier point in your life – you write about the mindset you’re in at that moment.”
Returning to the role of the coked-out hedonist that had once been his niche; this admission of personal growth raises the question of whether his new track is a purposefully meta-commentary on the playboy lifestyle that was amenable to him. After all, it’s hardly his first attempt at looking at a project with a conceptual scope.
In the wake of delivering his acclaimed debut LP Kiss Land, Abel detailed his willingness to take artistic liberties with the truth in order to craft a narrative during an interview with MTV:
“When you're traveling constantly, every day you become inspired, and it shows in my work, sonically, lyrically, visually," he said. "Conversations with women with different accents and stories told in those accents, I like to create characters based on different people I've met, and relationships. I like to tell stories loosely based on real-life events.”
So, as Trilogy was deep-rooted in the places, faces and scenario he found in Toronto, the follow-up saw him try to rationalize the shift from a level of anonymity that had people pondering whether Abel was a he, they or collective to the fame that he’d been accosted by. As to how this pertains each individual song, a chat with Billboard during the Starboy press run suggests that the mood and lyrical stance is intrinsically linked to where his head’s at.
“It’s almost schizophrenic, who I portray in my music. The vibe just represents how I feel, what relationship I’m going through, what friendships I’m going through, the success in my life, the failures in my life. It is all just documentation.”
Cold, nihilistic and unfeeling, this philosophy would suggest that “Heartless” and perhaps the accompanying album emanates from a time where Abel was succumbing to the worst parts of his nature. What remains to be seen is whether this is an examination of the here and now, or a frank reflection on his past indiscretions.
After expressing how he clings on to sobriety with Zane Lowe, it seems as though Abel has been walking the straight and narrow for much of the Starboy era. And barring any major backslide, his previous comments to the Guardian would suggest that in all probability, he’s now adopting the role of his past self for artistic ends rather than heading back towards that lifestyle.
“Drugs were a crutch for me. There were songs on my first record that were seven minutes long, rambling – whatever thoughts I was having when I was under the influence at the time. I can’t see myself doing that now.”
On the flipside, Abel did concede that its role as creative kindling hadn’t completely diminished by the time his third studio album rolled around:
“I had to get that little jump…, out came the weed, the Hennessy, probably a few more things. And the ball started rolling. And then I didn’t need it any more. Right now, I feel in control,” he assertively added. “Where it takes me after, I don’t know.”
Between the “Blinding Lights” that’s he’s lamenting over and the reckless, “lowlife for life” attitude that defines “Heartless,” could Chapter VI be an imagined scenario where he gives into the same vices that he’s battled in much of his discography?
Through the usage of words such as “psychotic” and Instagram-captioned proclamations of “going all the way up,” it seems that whatever the album will entail, it’s intended to provoke as well as tamper with boundaries of taste, decency and our preconceptions about what The Weeknd is.