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How One A&R Transformed The Weeknd Into A Pop Star

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Something strange has been happening to The Weeknd for the past year. Since his 2014 single “Often,” the Toronto crooner has undergone an evolution of sorts, landing him at the top of the Billboard charts with multiple hit songs in the shadow of Kiss Land, the official debut album from 2013 that left a sour taste in the mouths of fans.

After “Often,” which got a helpful boost thanks to a Kygo remix, Weeknd collaborated with Arian Grande for “Love Me Harder” off the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. That song was the first true hit he was attached to, breaking the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. His own song “Earned It” was next, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100, followed by the pair of monster hits – “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” both of which sit in the top 10 as we speak. Anyone who doubted the artist born Abel Tesfaye after the disappointing Kiss Land can’t deny that he’s been resurrected as one of the biggest pop stars of 2015.

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times just published a profile of the Toronto singer, whose career has always been marked by privacy and mystery, and in the profile we learn the exact way in which Weeknd pivoted from moody darkness to a shinier gloom- with the help of an A&R.

After Kiss Land, Weekend turned to the head of urban A&R at his record label, Republic, for advice. That woman, named Wendy Goldstein, came up with the idea to have him collaborate with another Republic artist – Ariana Grande. “Love Me Harder” sprung from the “hit-factory” of Max Martin, the Swedish super-producer who has given hits to Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and many others. When Martin sent Weeknd prepared lyrics for “Love Me Harder,” Tesfaye rejected them and sent back his own. “What could have been a contentious exchange was actually edifying for both parties,” writes Caramanica. “Martin liked Tesfaye’s changes and kept them; Tesfaye realized he could make sleek, accessible pop on his own terms. He asked Goldstein to secure Martin’s services for his next album. ‘If I’m gonna be the biggest in the world,’ he told her, ‘I need a handful of songs like that.’”

Thus began a working relationship between Martin and Weeknd that apparently comes to a head on Tesfaye’s upcoming album Beauty Behind The Madness, set to drop at the end of August. According to the profile, Weeknd went out to West Hollywood to work with Martins on the album in a compound once home to Frank Sinatra. The first song they did, “In The Night,” was described by Ron Perry, the president of Songs Music Publishing, as “‘Billie Jean.’ It’s ‘Billie [expletive] Jean!'”

Jason Quenneville, better known as DaHeala, has been a longtime collaborator and friend of Tesfaye’s, and he claims Beauty Behind The Madness is Weeknd saying, “O.K. fine, I’ll play ball.” Even Jimmy Iovine is impressed by the singer’s grip on traditional song structure – ‘‘In that area, he’s even stronger than I thought. You would think he’d be breathing his own exhaust and shutting the world out, and he’s not doing that.’’

As the world awaits Weeknd’s new album, read the Times profile to get a sense of the guy’s transformation over the last year. We’ll see if he can deliver on the promise that these crazy singles carry.

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