By Ronan Solomon, Editor-in-Chief
Earlier last month, the NFL’s 2020 season came to an end with Super Bowl LV, in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs at their home stadium. However, the real star of the show came at halftime, as musical artist The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) hit the stage and delivered a cinematic, surreal, trippy performance for the ages, breaking out a greatest hits medley from his decade-long catalogue. Dressed in the signature red suit which he’s donned in every public performance since roughly December 2019, a character created specifically for his 2020 studio album “After Hours,” Tesfake dazzled millions of viewers live for 15 minutes. Countless memes and conversations online sparked over the dizzying mirror maze sequence set to his 2015 song “Can’t Feel My Face,” or the elaborate choreography of hundreds of people, dressed identically in matching red suits and white face bandages, dancing on the field to the singer’s massive 2020 hit “Blinding Lights.” Extensively practiced and painstakingly designed at a grand scale, with Tesfaye putting 7 million of his own dollars towards making the show in his own vision, it was an extravagant halftime to remember.
However, there was a deeper meaning to the whole affair that casual viewers may not have picked up on. The unique, now-iconic outfit worn by The Weeknd actually represented a continuation of the storyline Tesfaye had been building up for over a year based around his fourth studio album, “After Hours,” and the central character the heart of the plot. It was the start of a new era for The Weeknd, which he promised would be more bizarre and inventive than anything his audience had seen before. This kicked off in November 2019 with the simultaneous release of two hit singles, “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights,” both of which immediately gained traction and excitement from fans, and received millions of streams. By the time of Super Bowl LV a little over a year later, “Blinding Lights” had hit 2 billion streams, an unfathomable milestone of streaming success for the song which ended up ruling 2020, and rocketed up the charts. From December 2019 to February 2020, Tesfaye began to promote the album with on-air late night performances, two music videos for both of singles, and a short film. It quickly became apparent that he planned on making his upcoming album more than just a body of music, but rather a cinematic experience with accompanying visuals and an ongoing storyline.
All of this self-created concept direction and story were integral to “After Hours,” which was finally released on March 20, 2020, just one week into the start of a global pandemic, and at the heart of that early quarantine period that defined last spring — now almost a full year ago. From there, Tesfaye had himself a smashing success: No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart in its first week of release along with some of the strongest critical acclaim of his career. The album found itself being classified within the spheres of new wave, dream pop, and R&B, and was seen as a reinvention for the artist, who went more experimental than ever with a brand new sound and image. This came after a decade of breaking into the mainstream, which involved a unique stylistic evolution for The Weeknd. Tesfaye released a hugely popular trilogy of dark, hedonistic R&B mixtapes in 2011 (“House of Balloons,” “Thursday,” and “Echoes of Silence”), which put him on the map with cosigns and collaborations with fellow Toronto native Drake. Riding this wave, Tesfaye came out with his debut studio album in 2013, “Kiss Land,” which underperformed publicly, disappointing both the singer himself and the high expectations of some fans. This was followed by his crossover to the mainstream of pop with two studio albums, “Beauty Behind The Madness” in 2015 and “Starboy” the very next year in 2016, both of which ended up smashing numerous records back to back. After a period of relationship turmoil, he returned in March 2018 with the heartbreak-influenced EP “My Dear Melancholy.”
Later that fall, Tesfaye was given his first opportunity to crossover to the big screen when he was cast in a minor role to play the 2012 version of himself in the Safdie Brother’s gritty thriller film “Uncut Gems,” which was released in 2019 to highly positive reviews. His willingness to diversify his medium of entertainment tested his ability to construct a persistent, recognizable brand of face and sound. “Uncut Gems” acted as a key influence in the construction of “After Hours,” Tesfaye’s most deep and cinematic album yet. Out the gate, all the pieces of media and performances related to the album coalesced to further the chronological narrative, centering around a self-performed, mysterious character — one who dresses in a bright red suit, wears expensive sunglasses, smokes cigars, and is constantly receiving bloody injuries to his face (later receiving a comically bad plastic surgery job, satirically criticizing Hollywood’s artificial expectations). Tesfaye is a known cinephile and pays homage to gritty films such as “Joker,” “Uncut Gems,” “Casino,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” within the promotion of “After Hours.” Thematically, Tesfaye explores the allure and cost of indulgence, along with his flaws and self hatred. The album’s thematic narrative is set to the fitting background of Las Vegas, or “Sin City,” which is the album’s central location and harbors an aesthetic that is decidedly dark and psychedelic. Each of the album’s music videos operate to further its plot, and even if it’s not all literal, it’s a trip to experience as the viewer attempts to connect themself with the mind of the listener, connecting the two experiences into one, putting the puzzle pieces together that Tesfaye has gleefully laid out. The visual and storytelling aspects of “After Hours” give it a glittering pastiche that’s like few other things seen in the music world, which is in large part what makes it so special as an experience and a piece of art.
The decision to release “After Hours” right at the beginning of quarantine and the global battle against COVID-19 was a massive risk, but it was one that Tesfaye himself insisted upon, fighting back against his label’s pressure to delay the hotly anticipated album. His planned international tour to promote the album in 2020 was delayed to 2021 (and in February it was postponed a second time to 2022), meaning he wouldn’t make much money from the release during the pandemic due to the fact that artists are paid so little for streams on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, and instead rely on paid performances and selling their own merchandise on tour to make the majority of their hefty incomes. As one of the most popular and successful figures in the music industry, though, Tesfaye is in an incredibly comfortable place financially — the singer has an estimated net worth of approximately 100 million dollars. In a period where many other artists ended up delaying their planned album releases out of fear, Tesfaye saw the opportunity to grow his fanbase even more, satisfy his fans, and rule the charts all at once. As it turns out, it paid dividends. Met with the best reviews and the most popularity of his career, The Weeknd was even more of a household name than ever before, as the artist was finally achieving greater heights than he’d ever reached.
Throughout the fall, various award shows took place, most of which went the same way for Tesfaye: he would show up dressed as his “After Hours” character, perform a song or two from his album (typically including “Blinding Lights”), win a handful of awards, and give a gracious speech, before going home for the night. But everyone, including Tesfaye, was looking ahead to the biggest musical award show of all. All year long, he’d felt assured by the fans, media, success, attention, and acclaim that this was his year, the year he would finally sweep the Grammys and be wholly rewarded for his insanely committed efforts on all fronts. Then came November, when their nominations were announced, and the internet was collectively shocked at the complete snub of “After Hours” — the album didn’t receive a single nomination in any category, a completely unexpected and disappointing fact that seemed almost unexplainable considering how many had predicted The Weeknd to win in multiple spots, and swore he deserved it. Tesfaye himself was left in furious disdain, and later demanded answers from the Recording Academy for what had happened. Rumors swirled about a potential internal dispute between Tesfaye and the Grammy association relating to the fact that he had just been chosen to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, and while it was clear something suspicious had likely occurred to sabotage his Grammy chances, nothing was officially confirmed. While Tesfaye continued to be upset over his awards snub, he later seemed to have gotten over it in bitter fashion, claiming he didn’t need any more Grammys as he already had won several in the past, additionally noting that at the end of the day he believes the Grammys to be nothing more than another corrupt award show.
So, for Abel Tesfaye, performing on that Super Bowl stage at halftime must have been an incredibly cathartic experience. He may not have gotten the awards or recognition that he wanted or thought he deserved, but he made up for it in his own way by heavily entertaining a packed stadium in the most-watched event of the year to over 100 million viewers. Soon after, he rocketed to become the top artist in the world on Spotify, with over 70 million monthly listeners of his own. The Weeknd is a certified superstar, and he’s showing no signs of going out anytime soon — he’s planning to go on tour around the world next year to promote his album. He doesn’t need the awards, because as someone who truly just wants to satisfy his loving fanbase and continue delivering the best of his work in the form of songs, performances, videos, clothing, and more, he’s already achieved that goal and will certainly continue to do so. Success is the best revenge, and Tesfaye undoubtedly has loads more of it coming in the future — the “After Hours” saga continues.