The definition of a pop star has certainly changed over the years. Once upon a time, hip-hop and rock artists had their own outlets and classifications, while pop stars made catchy music that appealed to a certain audience. For instance, in the early '90s, few would confuse Nirvana or Public Enemy with Madonna or Whitney Houston.
Later that decade, however, the lines began to blur. All of a sudden, Eminem, Korn and Britney Spears – three vastly different artists – found themselves not only appealing to similar fans, but doing so via similar outlets (MTV, pop radio, etc.). Rock and hip-hop stars were now pop stars.
That holds true to this day. After all, it could be argued that a hip-hop artist like Drake is the biggest pop star in America. Same for Kendrick Lamar. Even artists like Future and Twenty-One Pilots fall under this umbrella. Pop music is now diverse, all-encompassing and pretty much everything to everyone.
Which brings us to The Weeknd. The erstwhile Abel Tesfaye, who plays Toyota Center on Saturday night, is in many ways the perfect pop star. His songs infuse elements of rock and hip-hop, yet do so in a catchy enough way that even soccer moms sing along. He has collaborated with everyone from Drake to Ariana Grande to Daft Punk, which only furthers his reach as a pop artist. To top it off, the Weeknd pretty much rose to prominence at the perfect time.
It’s not exactly a secret that we live in polarizing times. No matter the topic – politics, religion, lifestyle choices – people are perhaps as divided ever. And this is why The Weeknd is the ideal pop star for our current state of affairs.
Sure, we are blessed with a bounty of worthwhile pop stars. Drake is cheesy to an extent, but the man brings the goods. Ed Sheeran has his followers, as does Ariana Grande. And The Chainsmokers, for some ungodly reason, have their proponents. These artists all fill a certain role, and each does so admirably in their own way. But none of them personifies today’s social climate like The Weeknd.
This is because he doesn’t do sunshine and saccharine. He writes gritty songs about late-night hookups, drug abuse and the worst parts of relationships. You need a shower after listening through a Weeknd album (this is a compliment, btw). His songs are ugly in the most beautiful way.
One must not even look beyond The Weeknd’s singles to experience this firsthand. Take “The Hills,” for instance. In approximately four minutes, The Weeknd manages to incorporate drugs, infidelity, mental illness, and major trust issues into one of the most beautiful and successful pop songs of 2015. Simply put, this is not the song to listen to at 5 a.m. when a bad relationship inevitably veers off the tracks.
Other tracks from his 2015 opus, Beauty Behind the Madness, follow suit. There's “Can’t Feel My Face” and its cocaine-induced hooks. “Often” features one of the more sexually-explicit choruses you’ll find in a song that somehow found its way to pop radio. “Dark Time” – which features an appearance from the aforementioned Sheeran – is basically a man admitting he isn’t good enough for anyone to love (save his mother). The song’s title could not be a more accurate representation of its subject matter.
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And then there’s “Earned It,” from the original 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. The song, later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, is an ideal fit for this particular film. After all, if there’s an artist perfectly suited to a film about damaged people doing damaging things to one another, it’s The Weeknd.
The Weeknd only doubled down on the excess and debauchery with his latest, last year’s Starboy. The title track and lead single finds The Weeknd as pop music’s biggest star, and he’s ready to act the part. Follow-up “False Alarm” almost sounds like it was designed to induce a panic attack; the track is that manic and over-the-top.
Sure, Starboy lacks the depth and depravity of its predecessor, and it’s about five shaved-off tracks away from being an absolute masterpiece. But, despite its flaws, Starboy is a true representation of The Weeknd. It’s dark, unapologetic and overindulgent. In a weird way, it’s exactly what we need right now.
The Weeknd and special guest Belly perform Saturday, May 6 at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; $39.50-150.