XO And Beyond: How The Weeknd Forged His Own R&B Empire

From shaping contemporary R&B to overlooking his own XO label and fashion line, The Weeknd has become one of the biggest artists of the decade.

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Weeknd RNB Empire
Photo courtesy of Republic Records

At the start of the 2010s, R&B experienced a surge of artists finding easier access and means to share their expressive work to millions of online followers and willing listeners. While many paved the way for today’s influx of R&B into mainstream pop – Frank Ocean, Jhené Aiko, and Tinashe among them – one artist stands tallest among the originators: Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd. Head of his own record label, XO, with its spin-off fashion line, The Weeknd oversees an R&B empire that leaves lesser artists dead in the water.

Listen to the best of The Weeknd on Apple Music and Spotify.

Musically, The Weeknd’s central sound is more complex than it first sounds. Those who stumbled upon the Toronto native’s mysteriously uploaded YouTube videos would learn this after the 2011 release of his first mixtape, House Of Balloons. An alchemy of genres ranging from moody, alternative R&B to 80s-centric dream-pop, House Of Balloons contains cuts that feel as if they were from another galaxy. The opening track, “High For This,” holds a distorted, razor-edge grind, while the titular track trips over a loopy interpolation of “Happy House” by UK punk/new wave pioneers Siouxsie And The Banshees.

House Of Balloons quickly set a theme of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” for The Weeknd’s lyrical subject matter. His attitude and raspy, almost spoken vocal delivery on “Glass Table Girls” and the repetitive encouragement “Girl put in work, girl, girl put in work” on “The Morning” set him as R&B’s latest bad boy. His style mirrors the penmanship and flavor of The-Dream and Bobby Brown, but it’s his longing falsetto-tenor that distinguishes The Weeknd’s signature voice as his own.

The Weeknd - The Morning

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Following House Of Balloons with two more critically acclaimed mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence, The Weeknd further cemented his melancholic vibe. All three mixtapes would be compiled into 2012’s remastered, three-part compilation album Trilogy – which was released under his Republic Records imprint, XO. If there is an all-encompassing term for what subgenre The Weeknd primarily occupies on Trilogy, “cloud R&B” might best describe it. Like its SoundCloud-branched companion, cloud rap, the sonics of cloud R&B are all about the trippy effects of drugs and how that’s reflected in the production, singing, and romanticized lyricism.

Wicked games

Amid The Weeknd’s three-mixtape run, he gained a notable fan: Drake, and it’s on the sedated midtempo Thursday track “The Zone” that Tesfaye’s fellow-Canadian appears. Drake raps “She in love with my crew,” a sly foreshadowing of the duo’s next collaboration, “Crew Love,” which appears on the rapper’s 2011 sophomore opus, Take Care. A featured cameo on that album, with a few writing and production credits on other songs such as “Shot For Me” and “The Ride,” would make for The Weeknd’s first taste of the international mainstream spotlight.

Trilogy would go on to be certified double-platinum in the US, ultimately rising to the top of critics’ decade’s-best lists. Aided by lead single “Wicked Games,” Trilogy added a throwback psychedelic rock aura to The Weeknd’s presentation; with their moody lighting and depictions of lonely journeys on highways, his stark, dark music videos also helped draw fans in, as did the signature unruly locks that he piled on top of his head.

The Weeknd - Wicked Games (Official Video - Explicit)

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In 2013, The Weeknd released his debut studio album, Kiss Land, also via XO/ Republic, and on which he paired his style of cloud R&B with dark wave tones. It’s almost as if he married Trilogy with the post-punk sonics of Depeche Mode’s classic album Violator. Kiss Land’s standout track, “Wanderlust,” continued on a retro wave reminiscent of the 80s Thriller-pop that Michael Jackson perfected. Come the release of his 2015 follow-up, Beauty Behind The Madness, and that sound can be traced to the Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Beauty Behind The Madness catapulted The Weeknd to a stratosphere of his own with international success. The heart-racing horror and dramatic urgency lying in “The Hills” also helped that song to the top spot, while he’d receive an Academy Award nomination for “Earned It,” which appeared on the sultry soundtrack of the box office smash Fifty Shades Of Grey. Beauty Behind The Madness put The Weeknd at the forefront of pop and R&B music, winning him Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2016 Grammys.

The Weeknd - Earned It (from Fifty Shades Of Grey) (Official Video - Explicit)

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The Weeknd’s third studio album, Starboy, brightened his sound with an intergalactic retro vibe. The Daft Punk-assisted smash title track evoked a confidence from within the loneliness, with lyrics boasting of the riches and stardom that fame has given him. Following that No.1 smash, the remainder of the album stays on an upbeat wave with “Party Monster,” “Reminder” and “Six Feet Under,” persisting with trap-R&B undertones. “I Feel It Coming” closes the album on a similar Europop note as “Starboy”; The album would earn The Weeknd his second Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy award.

2018 saw the arrival of The Weeknd’s first EP, My Dear Melancholy. In many ways, that record cycles back to the pioneering sound of Trilogy, particularly “Call Out My Name,” before continuing on a “Starboy” tip with collaborations featuring French producer and DJ Gesaffelstein. At the start of 2019, the pair released the single “Lost In The Fire,” on which The Weeknd croons “I can’t lose you baby,” circling back to his central theme of loneliness and heartbreak.

Gesaffelstein & The Weeknd - Lost in the Fire (Official Video)

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Leading the way for XO, The Weeknd has drafted an all-Canadian roster that’s now making its impact on the current scene. Belly, who co-wrote “Earned It,” drafted singer Kehlani for a guest turn on his 2016 cut “You,” which is a distorted, warped, and sensual trap-R&B cut. Meanwhile, Nav has been making his mark on the current cloud rap, emo rap, and mumble rap scenes, most notably with his featured part on Travis Scott’s “Beibs In The Trap.” On “Bali,” Nav collaborates with an XO duo, 88Glam, for their turbo-fuelled trap cut. Interestingly enough, all these artists stay true to The Weeknd’s code of battling loneliness with the playboy ego.

Reconsidering what sets The Weeknd and his XO labelmates’ apart from their peers, it’s clear to see that their styles merge the contemporary with the throwback, placing listeners in the cocaine- and ecstasy-induced glamor of the 80s and that decade’s alternative rave scenes.

It’s not surprising that most of that pleasant debauchery took place, for most, at the end of the week.

Listen to the best of The Weeknd on Apple Music and Spotify.

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