He caught the global music scene unawares, thumbing his nose at pop convention with a fearless fusion of brooding R&B and high-concept art rock. Within three years of his 2011 debut, Canadian singer/songwriter Abel Tesfaye, known as The Weeknd, had cultivated an underground following so loyal he headlined the world-famous Hollywood Bowl without ever having placed a Top 40 U.S. single.
So when fans learned in 2015 that their mysterious antihero was collaborating on a new album with renowned hit producers, including Max Martin and Savan Kotecha, it came as a shock. Was The Weeknd abandoning his trademark shadowiness to perform smiley-faced pop?
Fans needn't have worried. The Weekend's Beauty Behind The Madness has been hailed as a masterful reconciliation of R&B, pop and rock. Spawning the Album Of The Year-nominated "Can't Feel My Face" and No. 1 hit "The Hills," the album garnered an Album Of The Year GRAMMY nomination, and officially marked a breakthrough for The Weeknd and his XO imprint.
It was tempting to view Beauty Behind The Madness as a cynical appeal to radio listeners but, in fact, the album represented a massive risk. Beauty Behind The Madness is the result of The Weeknd and his collaborators heedfully seeking that sweet spot between engaging Top 40 and exquisite, R-rated urban pop. Following, The Weeknd and other key participants give the inside story of the album.
*The Weeknd (artist): I think the worst thing anyone can say about an artist is, "He could have been great." I was always scared of being that guy where it's like, "He could have been big. He could have been a star." I was afraid I'd see somebody else up there and be like, "You're trying to tell me they're better than me? Why? Because they've got a couple of smash records? I can do smashes. I could figure it out."
Savan Kotecha (songwriter): We had this song for Ariana Grande called "Love Me Harder," and we felt like it needed a duet. Wendy Goldstein at Universal was really pushing The Weeknd — "You gotta get The Weeknd! You gotta get The Weeknd!" I think it took like a month for Abel to finally agree.
Stephen Moccio (co-producer): We were commissioned [to write songs for the Fifty Shades Of Grey movie soundtrack]. The producers were looking for a specific, old-school sound, kind of an Al Green-meets-James Brown sound. So I was in my studio in L.A. with Abel, DaHeala [Jason Quenneville] and Belly [Ahmad Balshe], and I just started playing these innocent chords, and Abel and DaHeala start freaking out — "Oh, that stuff's amazing! Record it, record it!" There were no lyrics at the time, but those two chords just became such a huge foundation of "Earned It [Fifty Shades Of Grey]."
Kotecha: We sent Abel "Love Me Harder," and I think he recorded it in Toronto. He sent us back his verse, and we had a couple of tweaks we asked for, which he did very graciously. Then he sang his vocals, wrote a second verse, did some ad-lib stuff, and that was it, really. Then Wendy contacted us, saying Abel would like us to collaborate with him for his album.
Moccio: By the time [the movie producers] heard "Earned It," we had weeks to lock and produce, it was that under-the-gun. So a lot of the simplicity of the song could be blamed on the fact that I didn't have time to do more, other than to just concentrate on the performance of the strings, a great bass performance, a piano performance, and Abel's incredible vocal. Had I had another week, there [might] have been other instruments in it.
Danny "Dannyboystyles" Schofield (co-producer): I think Beauty Behind The Madness really started with "Often." That song set the tone for all us creators. It marked the letting go of [2013's] Kiss Land and the start of graduating. It was all of us in Miami just having a good time — me, DaHeala, Belly, Ben Billions, and Abel. I think it began with Ben Billions doing some programming, then DaHeala chopping up some samples, and Abel and Belly doing some melodies over the beat.
Ali Payami (co-producer): I met Abel at the studio here in L.A., and almost right away we started working. It was me, Max [Martin], and Abel's friends DaHeala and Belly, and everybody just throwing around ideas. The energy was so great. If anybody would get a little bit tired, somebody would give them energy to just, "C'mon! Let's do this!"
**The Weeknd: Max's studio used to be Marilyn Monroe's old house and I came up with the concept for a song called "In The Night" in her bedroom. That was pretty amazing.
In a span of like a month, we did so many songs. It was a learning experience for me. When you work with someone who has been doing it for as long as Max Martin, you can't help but learn.
Kotecha: The first song we did was "In The Night." We were talking about Michael Jackson, about doing a kind of shuffle beat like the one on "The Way You Make Me Feel."
Payami: We were listening to "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow, and talking about how the song is happy, but the lyrics are so depressing. So we wanted to make this dance-y song with real lyrics that would not be as happy. That's how "In The Night" came about. Thank you, Barry Manilow!
Dannyboystyles: I initially started ["As You Are"] with me, Abel and Belly on a keyboard here in L.A. Initially it was just a song we were having fun with. As time went by, Abel's manager said, "That song is amazing." We were like, "Really? You think so?" Initially, it was a harder record, but DaHeala had the idea to make it more of a "feeling" song.
Kotecha: "Can't Feel My Face" was just fun … all of us in the room, coming up with melodies. It was a much brighter song when we started it, but Abel really kept pushing us to make it more moody … so Ali actually went back and sort of darkened it up really quickly, and that's what turned it into a hit. Ali and Max did a great job of translating what Abel was saying about the song.
Payami ["Can't Feel My Face" is] a very spare song. It's very concentrated on Abel's vocals. He's the one making it special.
Kotecha: The funny story is that me and Max didn't realize what "can't feel my face" meant. Then we found out, and we were like, 'oooooooh!' [The expression is slang for feeling intoxicated].
**The Weeknd: I wrote "Dark Times" with Ed Sheeran; that was kind of spontaneous. He was hosting the Much Music [Video] Awards in Toronto and I invited him, and pretty much the entire awards show, to my condo to party. It went on until about 5 in the morning, but we didn't write the song until that next day, so you can imagine how that night went. Ed also did a freestyle battle with [rapper] Waka Flocka [Flame] in my kitchen. That was pretty dope. Good times.
Payami: Being a kid from a little South Sweden city … to be GRAMMY nominated … it's a special feeling. And it was so much fun doing it. We really didn't think, "Let's sit down and make hit songs." We just did stuff we loved. You knew that you were part of something special.
Bruce Britt is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and other distinguished publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
Tune in to the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS.
*As told to Rolling Stone
** As told to GQ magazine