We all know that Abel Makkonen Tesfaye (aka the Weeknd) is playing the Palace of Auburn Hills on Saturday, Nov. 7. And everyone will totally be there. It is easily the biggest show in metro Detroit through the end of the year — an artist at peak popularity coming to town fresh off two consecutive No. 1 singles.
With Drake's song and video for "Hotline Bling" generating so many memes, views, and clicks since its recent release, many have expressed surprise that the Weeknd's "The Hills" has still managed to occupy the No. 1 spot — holding off his fellow Canadian for three weeks in a row. "Hotline Bling" is of course more of the same from Drake: a tale of former lovers that is catchy yet morose, where he brags of sexual conquests and still somehow manages to sound all emo.
"The Hills," on the other hand, is illustrative of a much broader trend in music. In stark contrast to the staccato rhythms and heavenly setting of "Hotline Bling," it is telling that a track as dark as "The Hills" has managed to top the charts and a video that has reached upward of 130 million views on YouTube.
The hosts of the radio program Critical Karaoke recently identified what they see as two predominant trends in popular music today. One is the Christina Aguilera-esque tendency toward booming female vocalists, largely driven by shows like American Idol. The most obvious example is Ariana Grande. The second, perhaps opposite trend, is that of hip-hop artists who aim to deliver as many syncopated rhymes in as little time as possible. The foremost example here is Kendrick Lamar.
But the sound embodied by artists like the Weeknd — and the one currently dominating the charts — is that of the dark, brooding R&B crooner. It is worth noting that "The Hills" is further downtempo from his last single "Can't Feel My Face," which will ultimately be remembered as Spotify's song of the summer for 2015. "Can't Feel My Face" is a lively addition to the canon of love songs that appear to be written for someone, when in reality they are about something else altogether. The classic example is a pet, which is the easiest to disguise. Here the object of the Weeknd's affection in "Can't Feel My Face" seems to be a drug, with side effects that involve the numbing of one's face.
It is also a relatively subtle segue into the blatant obscenity of "The Hills." He has skirted controversy in the past with his video for "Pretty," the revenge fantasy which sees him murdering a former lover and her new flame. He has so far managed to avoid major criticism for misogynistic lyrics, or videos like "Earned It," which was featured on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack and included heavy S&M imagery. But "The Hills" is his biggest single to date, one that includes the admission that "I just fucked two bitches 'fore I saw you." Despite its ugliness, there is obviously something in "The Hills" that people relate to on a universal level. Perhaps it is the honesty in that line from the chorus, "When I'm fucked up that's the real me."
The Weeknd's career began with a trilogy. In 2010, he released three songs on YouTube —"What You Need," "Loft Music," and "The Morning" — which established his trademark sound and aesthetic. Along with the sex and drug references that we now take for granted as part of his music, the unusual musical template he has drawn from includes samples from the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins. And most recently, the Weeknd marked the latest landmark in his career with yet another trilogy.
His newest album, The Beauty Behind the Madness, was accompanied by the production of three music videos by director Grant Singer. Like Guns N Roses' classic music video series from the Use Your Illusion albums — where "November Rain," "Don't Cry," and "Estranged" tracked the progress of Axl Rose's marital breakdown — it features an overarching narrative and the inclusion of one rather disturbing recurring character. Rick Wilder, formerly of the Berlin Brats and the Mau Maus, is the distinctive, somewhat androgynous, skeletal figure who appears in all three of the videos from The Beauty Behind the Madness. While Singer has declined to comment on the significance of Wilder's role in the videos, many have speculated that he represents the devil. As a onetime fixture on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, it would not be unreasonable for us to assume that they are correct.
The video for "Can't Feel My Face" is a familiar setup we might expect from the Weeknd's self-professed hero Michael Jackson, or maybe even Billy Joel. We find the Weeknd onstage in front of an incredibly hostile audience, singing to the object of his affection in the front row. Drinks are thrown. Bottles are hurled and narrowly dodged. You have to truly hate someone to sacrifice a full drink. Then midway through the scene, the specter of Wilder appears somewhere in the audience, sitting alone at a table and smoking a cigarette. He produces a silver Zippo lighter, which he throws at the Weeknd, who immediately bursts into flames. Engulfed by fire, the Weeknd is able win the favor of the audience, who then rises from their seats and start to dance.
Director Singer's vision for "The Hills" is considerably darker, and appropriately so, given the tone of the song. The Weeknd has overturned his car in what appears to be the Hollywood Hills — perhaps on his way from the lounge scene he just left — and after freeing two trapped women from the back seat, he limps away from the wreck. Like last time, he is accosted by those around him, being pushed and shoved by the women from the car. He wanders into a nearby house and ascends the staircase to find Wilder waiting for him.
But when we next join the Weeknd in the video for "Tell Your Friends," he has buried Wilder in the desert. After shooting him in the head execution-style, the Weeknd coolly exits the scene as if he were Scarface or Walter White, his stoicism betrayed only by a ridiculous hairstyle. As the trilogy draws to a close, we are left with several unanswered questions.
The latest video for the remix of "The Hills," featuring Eminem, has been called a "virtual reality experience." In practice, it operates more like Google street view, where the Weeknd is exiting the club from "Can't Feel My Face" as the world around him appears to be coming to an end. The video follows a set path, but viewers are free to scroll around the landscape where cars explode and comets rain from the sky.
Like his video trilogy from The Beauty Behind the Madness, it is unclear what the makers of the video had wanted to achieve. The experience is less than remarkable. Especially when compared to the career of an artist who has managed to achieve mainstream success with a Lynchian video trilogy and some of the darkest material we have ever seen at the top of the charts.
The Weeknd plays the Palace of Auburn Hills on Saturday, Nov. 7; Doors at 7:30 p.m.; 6 Championship Dr, Auburn Hills; www.palacenet.com; Tickets are $89.50, $69.50 and $39.50.
Adam Woodhead is an intern for Metro Times.