Before The Weeknd became a chart-topping pop star, the singer was a faceless force of the underground alt-R&B scene. Born Abel Tesfaye, the Toronto native first appeared in 2011 with a trio of independently released mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. But even as those records generated widespread interest in the singer, The Weeknd remained a mystery, with the clouds from his hazy lyrics billowing his face and real name from listeners.
It wasn’t until his major-label debut on Republic Records, 2013’s Kiss Land, that The Weeknd emerged from the shadows and into the spotlight. The singer had initially built his musical persona around drugs, loneliness, and lust – and Kiss Land continued along these lines. When it came time for the follow-up, though, the mainstream world and Tesfaye were ready to move toward one another. The result, 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, shot him into stardom. Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the album was anchored by a landmark song that shifted the trajectory of the artist’s career.
“Can’t Feel My Face” may have been the third single picked from Beauty Behind the Madness, but it remains the biggest. Gone was the murky, chilling production from The Weeknd’s mixtape days. For “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd called upon pop music’s legendary hitmaker Max Martin and Ali Payami (best known for his Grammy-winning work on Taylor Swift’s 1989). The two producers created a bouncy, vibrant melody that drew inspiration from one of The Weeknd’s biggest heroes, Michael Jackson.
“He’s everything to me, so you’re going to hear it in my music,” The Weeknd told the LA Times in 2016. “Off the Wall was the album that inspired me to sing. It helped me find my [voice] … “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” I kept singing that, and I found my falsetto.”
Rather than wanting to escape to the darkest corner of the party like his previous songs suggested, “Can’t Feel My Face” rushes you onto the dancefloor as soon as the beat drops. The lyrics were also a step away from the singer’s previous work. Here, he trades in a yearning to be alone for a desire to never leave his lover’s side. The paraphernalia references still remain (“I can’t feel my face when I’m with you, but I love it” is a double entendre that alludes to both the numbing effects of drugs and the constant smiling when seeing your lover), but they’re more subdued for endless radio play.
The formula worked: “Can’t Feel My Face” was an irresistible earworm that not only became a Top 40 radio favorite, but it’s also certified 8x Platinum and gave The Weeknd his first No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It broke a few interesting records, too: After three nonconsecutive weeks atop the chart, the singer made history when his next single, “The Hills,” entered in the second slot. He was the first act since The Black Eyed Peas to secure the top two positions on the Hot 100. When “The Hills” rose to No. 1 the following week, he became the first artist since Taylor Swift to replace themselves at the top spot.
The song was a genuine pop phenomenon, appearing in series like Empire and Being Mary Jane, video games like Madden NFL 16 and Just Dance 2017, and even covered by Tom Cruise and Stevie Wonder. By the time awards season rolled around, The Weeknd received his career-first Grammy recognition. “Can’t Feel My Face” was nominated for Record of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, his “Earned It” single won Best R&B Performance, and the Beauty Behind the Madness album was up for Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album (it won the latter).
“Can’t Feel My Face” served as an entry point for The Weeknd to explore poppier, more mainstream sounds that balance a radio-friendly appeal with his sordid roots. This fusion has now become his signature – and it’s all thanks to a tune that went from numbing his face to hypnotizing the world.
The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” appeared on NOW That’s What I Call Music 56, alongside other hits like Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer.” Looking for more stories behind music’s biggest hits? Check out the Now! That’s What I Call Music page.