Adult movies. Color TV. Waterbed. These are three amenities that the Harvard House, an hourly motel tucked away on Hollywood Boulevard, still proudly advertises in 2021. When a Yelp user wrote a one-star review that concluded with the line “Definitely AVOID this shithole,” I doubt they foresaw it being the temporary lair for one of the biggest global pop stars of our time.
He’s leaning against a wall, wearing a pinstripe Louis Vuitton suit and Celine Cuban heels that are so tall they look like you need a safety permit to wear them. Styling assistants and groomers buzz around him, primping and tweaking. Today his hair, a celebrity in its own right, consists of tiny curls perfectly cascading out of an Afro. Each rogue coil attracts light from the sun, creating something like a halo. Despite the current heat advisory in L.A., there isn’t a single bead of sweat on his brow. No sheen. Nothing.
Everyone crowding around the monitor looking at the incoming photos is thinking the same thing: It’s him. The Starboy. The architect of the sexiest music to ever chart. Sole winner of Super Bowl LV. Lover to some of the most desired women on earth. The Ethiopian kid who changed R&B with three twisted, druggy mixtapes and never showed his face. The one with the falsetto rivaled only by the GOAT. The pop star who was infamously nominated for an award at a kids’ show for singing about face numbing off a bag of blow. Sure, the Harvard House has seen some shit. But so has Abel Tesfaye—a.k.a. The Weeknd.
The day before the photo shoot, I met that same guy at a recording studio in Century City. He was wearing a black Online Ceramics hoodie and sweatpants that were more function than fashion. I don’t remember his shoes, but they weren’t Cuban heels. A backpack weighed down his right shoulder. It was stuffed as if he had packed for a whole day of bouncing around in Ubers. There were no disco aviators. His ’fro wasn’t illuminated. We were supposed to meet at 6 p.m. He apologized, repeatedly, for being late. He arrived at 6:07 p.m.
It’s clear that the rumors are true: Abel and The Weeknd are two very different beings. The Weeknd has the longest-charting song by a solo artist in history and billions of worldwide streams. The Weeknd spent his pandemic in a red blazer licking frogs dipped in LSD. Abel, meanwhile, was bingeing The X-Files. (“Everyone copied them, bro,” he told me. “Everyone.”) Abel talks about getting a good night’s sleep the way someone might talk about good MDMA. He has been rediscovering L.A.: Last year, when the streets emptied out, he started taking long walks. He exudes a type of politeness found only in the world capital of politeness (Ontario, Canada). The Weeknd is the guy who destroys the suite at Caesars Palace like in The Hangover. Abel is the sweet guy whom they lose in the first 30 minutes and spend the rest of the movie trying to find.
GQ: What is the difference between Abel and The Weeknd?
The lines were blurry at the beginning. And as my career developed—as I developed as a man—it’s become very clear that Abel is someone I go home to every night. And The Weeknd is someone I go to work as.
So am I interviewing The Weeknd or Abel?
I think you’re getting a Jekyll and Hyde situation right now. [Laughs.]
Which one’s Jekyll and which one’s Hyde?
I don’t know. Abel can be badass sometimes, man. But I guess The Weeknd is Hyde. Abel is Dr. Jekyll.
How do you feel about people thinking you’re a dark person?
I am not dark. My art is dark, and I’ve gone through dark times. I’ve used those dark times as inspiration for my art. But I feel like because I’m not dark, I was able to channel it and put it into my music and into my art.
What was the original reason for your anonymity?
I don’t know. Maybe there is a deeper issue with that, but I feel like with me it’s never been about the artist and the image of the artist. With House of Balloons, nobody knew what I looked like. And I felt like it was the most unbiased reaction you can get to the music, because you couldn’t put a face to it. Especially R&B, which is a genre that is heavily influenced by how the artist looks.
When did you first hear your voice and know that it was special?
I used to get penalized for singing when I was younger, because I always wanted to sing. I didn’t know if it was good or bad. I just always wanted to sing. I would sing in class. I would sing at the dinner table. And I would get in trouble for it because it was inappropriate at the time. It wasn’t until I met La Mar, my best friend. He heard me sing and was like, “You should sing for Canadian Idol.”
Did you try to go on Canadian Idol?
No! [Laughs.] But then I started singing to girls and I was getting great feedback. The second instance was when “What You Need” came out. It was the first song that came out from The Weeknd. Nobody knew what I looked like. I was not popping. I was struggling at the time. A good friend of mine hooked me up with a job at American Apparel, and I was folding clothes there when somebody at the store played the song. Mind you, nobody knew who The Weeknd was.
Did you freak out?
Well, no. I started listening, seeing what people thought of it. That’s what I mean by the unbiased reaction. When I saw that everybody was like, “This is fire,” I was like, “Oh!”
So where does the name The Weeknd come from?
That’s what the album House of Balloons used to be called: The Weekend. I was still Abel. I didn’t love my name. So I called myself The Weeknd.
Do you still like the name The Weeknd as much as you did then?
As much as I did then?
No, not as much as I did then. I still like it, but I think now it’s easy to take off that coat. I like that I have that as an option to escape Abel a little bit. I definitely loved it more back then than I do now. I love my name now, though: Abel.
Would you ever make music as Abel?
I feel like I already do. My fans don’t call me The Weeknd. They just call me Abel. It’s a tricky thing, but I think the name The Weeknd holds such a legacy right now. The story of that name isn’t done yet.
In most of your videos, The Weeknd is murdered, beaten up, et cetera. What is your fascination with killing The Weeknd?
It’s crazy, right? I think it’s me removing The Weeknd from Abel. I think a lot of people are like, “Oh, he’s suicidal.” It’s not that. I think it’s me removing The Weeknd from the world, but he still finds his way back. He keeps coming out. “Blinding Lights” is obviously not going to have him disappear anytime soon.
Do you ever feel guilty, when you date someone who isn’t famous, for bringing so much attention and celebritydom into their life?
Yes. I do feel guilty. For sure. That’s why I don’t… I try not to do too much. I just try not to bring attention to myself. And I just love being in normal situations, man. It’s such a great feeling. To be able to just like go on a walk and not being in a fucking SUV.
There’s chatter on the internet that you’re sober or sober lite.
I like sober lite.
Do you drink?
I do. Occasionally. I’m not a heavy drinker, as much as I used to be. The romance of drinking isn’t there.
No. Drugs were a crutch. It was me thinking that I needed it. And not doing the work to figure out how not to need it. And I’ve spent the last few years realizing that and thanking God that I don’t need it. Because for a lot of people, it’s hard to shake it. But I knew I didn’t want it.
It’s tough to play the long game with drugs in the picture.
Right. And I eventually want a family. I know I say I don’t, but I know I do. I want children.
Why do you say you don’t want children?
Why do I say I don’t?
Yeah. Is it a defense mechanism or something?
Probably. I guess I say it because I like the trajectory of my career. But also I feel like having children would influence me and inspire me more.
That makes me think of the lyric from the “Hawái” remix with Maluma: “I’d rather go half on a baby / ’Cause at least I know that it’s not temporary / And at least we’ll share something that’s real.”
Toxic! [Laughs.] Did I lie, though? Doesn’t get more real than that. You know?
Do you ever think about having to explain some of your more sexual lyrics to your future kids?
Absolutely. And I’m prepared for it. At the end of the day, it’s my art. And that’s who Daddy was.
The one and only moment when The Weeknd appeared in the studio was right before Abel played me a few new songs off his upcoming album. He turned around, grinned, and asked, “Ready?”
It wasn’t prompted by genuine concern that maybe I needed to grab a notebook or a bottle of water. Concern is Abel stuff. This “Ready?” was condescending. Knowing. It had a certain arrogance someone could only conjure with 100 percent certainty that I was indeed not ready. And he was right.
The music hit the studio like a Mack truck. The new project is packed with party records. Like real-deal, illuminated-white-tiles-on-the-floor party records. Quincy Jones meets Giorgio Moroder meets the best-night-of-your-fucking-life party records. Not anachronistic disco stuff. (Not “cosplay,” as Abel put it.) That sort of retro thing is having a moment right now in pop music, but these records are new. Sweaty. Hard. Drenched-suit, grinding-on-the-girl/boy-of-your-dreams party records.
“It’s the album I’ve always wanted to make,” Abel said. That statement would linger in my brain for days. As did the music. It became nearly impossible to find something else to listen to. Everything else sounded soft. Or didn’t groove enough. Or felt too happy. Or too sad. It was clear to me that this isn’t just the album The Weeknd has always wanted to make; it’s the album we’ve always wanted him to make.
The project wasn’t quite finished yet, but if he stays the course it’ll be the best project he’s ever put out. This, whatever it’ll be called—following ‘After Hours,’ following ‘Starboy,’ following ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’—will cement one of the most impressive choke holds on the radio we’ve ever seen. Which is why ‘Kiss Land,’ which came after the three mixtapes and is considered his first “studio” album, is so curious. It doesn’t hit the high standards of his other work—sonically, lyrically, visually. It has a few truly great songs on it—“Adaptation” and “Wanderlust,” for example. But it’s a jumble of what feels like an endless number of warring ideas. ‘Kiss Land’ is an odd fit in his catalog, considering that ever since he was a teenager, The Weeknd has had such a clear vision for his music.
Why did Kiss Land fall short? Was it the label people pushing and pulling you in different directions or what?
Oh, no. The exact opposite. Kiss Land is not a label’s type of record. Especially since it’s the debut album. As a debut record, there was an expectation for it. I guess, for me, it was the fourth album. I feel like I said everything I needed to say on *Trilogy—*and that sound and whatever I wanted to put out into the universe. It created a genre, and I made 30 of those fucking songs. I think by the time I got to Kiss Land, I was definitely emotionally tapped out. I did three albums in one year—plus I was working on Take Care too. And that was all in 2011.
That’s an insane run.
Then I went on tour. Jimmy Iovine told me this, and I’ll never forget it. He goes, “You never want to finish an album, let alone make an album, on tour.” That album, I made on tour. Kiss Land was a very tour-driven album. And you have to understand, I’d never left Toronto up to that point. I’d been in Toronto my entire life. I’d never been on a plane until I was 21 years old.
You did Coachella when you were around 21, right?
Yeah! The second time I ever got on a plane was the Coachella performance. I went on one plane trip before that—to Costa Rica as a vacation. Going on tour, seeing the world—I went to Tokyo, America—there’s all this new information. And then on top of that, I wanted to continue making music. And me not fully transitioning into full-on pop star yet, I was kind of in a middle ground. And I feel like Kiss Land was that. It was a very honest album. It was a lot of me being stubborn, of not letting a lot of input in. I had hit writer’s block, and my friend Belly helped me out of that. It was a lot of overcompensation to really say, “I don’t know. This is what I have, but I don’t know what this is.” And it became Kiss Land.
What did you learn from it?
It reminded me that I’ll never stop taking chances. If it wasn’t for Kiss Land, I wouldn’t have been able to make this new album. That song that you just heard? That’s Kiss Land, man. It’s just me understanding how to use Kiss Land now, in my craft. But it’s definitely my most honest record. I was the most naked. Most vulnerable. And it is what it is.
Were you disappointed in the response and reviews?
Oh, yeah. I think people were confused. It wasn’t that it was bad music. I think people were just confused. As much as I was confused. And I kind of like that.
Did it discourage you at all?
No, no. If anything, it encouraged me. I read every single review. I read every comment. Everything. And I like reviews, man. I like critics. Even the biased ones that are against me, I like reading it. I think it’s interesting. I think it’s humbling, which is always great. I can now understand when you’re reading stuff. Like I can see through the lines now. Between the lines.
Did it hurt your feelings?
Of course. Yeah.
So why read them? It feels like most people in your position never read the comments and reviews.
Heartbreak isn’t a good experience, but it still inspires great music.
Could you have made a fourth mixtape in the same vibe as the trilogy?
Honestly, I don’t think so. I was tapped out, man. It just didn’t feel authentic. Like, Kiss Land felt way more authentic. At least Kiss Land was a genuine thing. It might not have been what people expected. It might not have been great at the time. But that was who I was. And that’s what all these albums are: That’s who I am at that time. Melancholy. Six songs. That’s all I got. How come it’s not nine songs? Because I got nothing else to say.
What was the inspiration for your 2018 EP, My Dear Melancholy?
I used it as therapy. I made it in like three weeks. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I knew how I wanted it to sound—and that was it. And then I performed it at Coachella, and boy, was that therapeutic, because I was hearing people scream and sing along to “Call Out My Name.” Just me and a guitar. Then I went to Brazil and those festivals, and hearing literally like 80,000, 90,000 people screaming every word to “Call Out My Name”—it felt good.
When does the therapeutic healing begin—when you make the song or when people hear it?
I think when other people hear it.
Feels like it would be the other way around, no?
I don’t know. It just feels better sharing. Because now it’s real. It’s real. You’re immortalizing it. When someone is talking in therapy, they’re giving it to somebody. You’re not getting it off your chest alone.
Last November, The Weeknd called the Grammys “corrupt” when ‘After Hours’—which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts and went double platinum—wasn’t nominated in a single category. The snub felt like an odd deviation from the organization’s usual formula, in which critical acclaim plus commercial success equals a ton of nominations, and he vowed to boycott the Grammys altogether going forward. A tweet from Kid Cudi possibly summed up the entire situation best: “Abel was robbed man this shits weak.”
In some ways, we still don’t know the full story about what happened with you and the Grammys. So what happened?
I guess I just wasn’t good enough.
You don’t actually believe that, though, right?
I don’t believe that, but to their standards, that’s what it is. I wasn’t good enough, and that’s the reality of it.
But do you think a group of people objectively and fairly considered your album along with other albums and didn’t choose to nominate your art? Do you think that’s actually what happened?
When it happened, I had all these ideas and thoughts. I was angry and I was confused and I was sad. But now, looking back at it, I never want to know what really happened.
I just don’t care. Because that will never be the reason why I do what I do. It never really was before. And I’m glad that I can make music and not have to think about that. I’ll never be in that conversation ever again.
You’ll never submit your music to the Grammys?
No. I mean, I have no interest. Everyone’s like, “No, just do better next time.” I will do better, but not for you. I’m going to do better for me.
How will you define success for the next project?
What makes any of my albums a successful album, especially this one, is me putting it out and getting excited to make the next one. So the excitement to make the next project means that this one was successful to me. I want to do this forever. And even if I start getting into different mediums and different types of expressions, music will be right there. I’m not going to step away from it.
One admirable thing about Abel Tesfaye is he has no problem making fun of The Weeknd. Like all the other great pop stars, he never takes himself too seriously. In 2020, he cowrote and starred in an episode of ‘American Dad,’ in which The Weeknd was actually a closeted virgin and a light emanates from his underutilized crotch. Even though he’s never done an interview on a late-night talk show (The Weeknd, apparently, doesn’t speak much on camera), he did a very goofy—and very long—bit with James Corden in preparation for the Super Bowl. There’s dancing and an obstacle course and other James Corden–y gags. Even his part in ‘Uncut Gems,’ where The Weeknd tries to hook up with Adam Sandler’s girlfriend in the bathroom of 1 Oak, was a parody of The Weeknd. He wore a wig of his old unruly hair. For the entire year-plus promotional jag for ‘After Hours,’ The Weeknd appeared in character as an unnamed man in a red blazer and black tie, with a face full of bandages and clotting blood.
How many of the red blazers from After Hours do you own?
More than 10? Fifteen?
I would say 20…yeah. And there was the Super Bowl blazer. So 21. Yeah.
R.I.P. to the blazers. Are you happy to be done with that character?
I am. I’m happy also because I’m just really excited to get started on the new project. But it was emotional, man, ending it on the Super Bowl. I think it was the best way to say goodbye to it.
There was so much detail in executing the character. What was the meaning behind it?
I guess I was just trying to symbolize how dark this town can get. And how the result of that darkness is very, I guess, self-harming. And that’s what the album was about. And I guess I wanted to create something that was haunting. What my depiction of Hollywood was—what The Weeknd’s depiction of Hollywood was. Not Abel’s, but The Weeknd’s.
But to an outsider looking in, it would appear that The Weeknd thrives off of the toxicity of Hollywood.
That’s amazing. I think Abel would love to depart and divide himself from The Weeknd. It’s like the Venom thing, man. [Editor’s note: In the Spider-Man comics, Venom is an alien symbiote that grafts its consciousness onto a human host.] He just doesn’t know how to yet. You know? And that is the journey I feel for me. And he doesn’t know how to yet.
Are you both into the same type of women?
Congrats on the upcoming HBO show, by the way. Do you plan on writing and directing films one day?
Absolutely. When the time is right. Cinema has always been my first passion.
When you were 19, first starting out, what was your favorite movie?
So 2009, hmm. Audition, probably, by Takashi Miike.
That’s a dark film, man! If you could play any role from a past film, what would it be?
Honestly, I’m just going to be honest with it. Fucking Neo from The Matrix. I mean, who didn’t want to be fucking Neo? That movie literally changed my life.
So if you’re playing Neo, who would you have play Trinity?
Carrie-Anne Moss. It would still be her. She was fire.
Who would you like to work with soon?
I’d love to work with Arca. Arca’s great. I’d love to work with Kanye again. Especially on production. I got mad love for Tyler, the Creator, and what he’s doing right now. Tyler is funny, man. I remember he came to one of my performances—I think it was like a festival performance. And he was very vocal about how “Starboy” was his favorite song at the time. You can tell he’s waiting for the song. I could see him. As soon as the song happened, he’s like, “All right, cool. Thanks.” And he just peaced out. It was pretty funny. But he’s somebody that I really admire, because he wears his feelings on his sleeve.
What’s the craziest moment you’ve had with someone fanning out to a song?
Tom Cruise singing to “Can’t Feel My Face” on late-night TV. That was like, “What the fuck is happening to my life?” When he did that, that moment was crazy, just because he’s not a real person. He’s a figment of my childhood.
In my life? Nothing at all.
Nothing at all?
Nothing that I could think of. Not at 31 years old, no.
Were you able to celebrate your 30th, or did the pandemic ruin that?
My birthday was right before. The party wasn’t big. It was a little venue. Super grungy. Really good. It’s a place on the Eastside, lit-up floors. I was DJ’ing with friends. There were like a hundred people. We had fun, and we were sloppy. I think I hugged every single person in that building. It was a great moment. And I met Jim Carrey.
He came to the party?
No. We’d been texting prior to that. And then, on my 30th birthday, he surprised me. He just pulled up to my crib and took me to breakfast.
How did he get your address?
He lived literally like two buildings down from me. He had a telescope, and I had a telescope. He was like, “Where do you live? What floor do you live on?” I was like, Blah, blah, blah. And we looked out the windows on our telescopes and we could see each other.
That was like the beginning of my 30s. It was just like, What is going on?
Last few questions: Are you better at making music when you’re happy or when you’re sad?
I believe that when anybody is sad, they make better music. They make more emotional music, more honest music. Cathartic, therapeutic music. And I’ve definitely been a victim of wanting to be sad for that, because I’m very aware. I definitely put myself in situations where it’s psychologically self-harming. Because making great music is a drug. It’s an addiction and you want to always have that. Fortunately, I’ve been through that and I’ve learned how to channel it. And I’ve experienced enough darkness in my life for a lifetime. I feel lucky that I have music, and that’s probably why I haven’t dabbled into too much therapy, because I feel like music has been my therapy.
How do you feel about being compared to Michael Jackson?
It’s a roller coaster, because Michael is somebody that I admire. He’s not like a real person, you know? When I started making music, that’s all I wanted to aspire to, just like every other musician. So then when I started getting those types of comparisons, I invited them, because it’s like who wouldn’t want that? But I guess the older I got, and the more I started understanding who I was, it was very important for me to realize: How do I become that for someone else? Because I know James Brown was that for Michael. And I’m not trying to say I’m Michael’s successor or whatnot. But I’m excited to be the first Weeknd.
Mark Anthony Green is GQ’s special projects editor.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue with the title “The Weeknd vs. Abel Tesfaye.”
Photographs by Daniel Jackson
Styled by George Cortina
Hair by Daronn Carr for BlendLA
Skin by Christine Nelli for Magic Shave
Tailoring by Susie Kourinian
Produced by GE Projects