By Hayden Wright
At the ripe old age of 26, the Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) has thoroughly transformed the contemporary R&B landscape. Though his massive breakout came in 2015, Tesfaye had spent the previous five years building a discography that includes mixtapes, high-profile remixes and collaborations. Now at the top of his game, the Weeknd has one of the most distinctive voices and styles in popular music.
Tesfaye’s catalog includes three studio albums (the most recent of which, Starboy, debuted last month) and three mixtapes—which were merged and remixed on his 2012 compilation Trilogy. So how do these releases stack up against each other? We’ll break it down.
Beauty Behind the Madness (2015). Simply put, Tesfaye’s breakout album is his best effort, earning fans who hadn’t taken note of him during the mixtape years. Its dark ruminations on sex, drugs, excess, fame and heartbreak mark a sophisticated integration of themes and sounds he’d labored over for years. Pop tunes like “Can’t Feel My Face” fit neatly alongside nailbiters like “The Hills.” On “Earned It,” Tesfaye even channels something reminiscent of the Rat Pack.
Starboy (2016) If Beauty Behind the Madness marked the culmination of the Weeknd’s signature style, Starboy is his first genuine effort at reinvention. On the album, Tesfaye goes brighter and poppier than on his previous records, leaning on Daft Punk on tracks like “I Feel It Coming” to let some light in. A haunting Kendrick Lamar collaboration (“Sidewalks”) gave weight and gravity to the Weeknd’s new direction. Starboy is a smart, subtle redefinition of his brand.
Echoes of Silence (2011) A critical entry point to the Weeknd’s discography is his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” which appeared on his mixtape Echoes of Silence. Of all Jackson’s hits, the song lays a framework for the kind of raw, minor-key R&B that Tesfaye would make his signature. He didn’t borrow Jackson’s hopeful, upbeat, glossy ideas about the genre: Tesfaye was more interested in mining the underbelly of rejection and crisis. Echoes of Silence is his third mixtape of 2011 and reveals tremendous growth since House of Balloons.
Thursday (2011) The highlight of Thursday, Tesfaye’s second 2011 mixtape, is “The Birds” (parts one and two). Together, they make an ambitious 10-minute opus with complicated soundscapes and a storyline: The Weeknd begs a woman not to fall in love with him in part one, and by part two, she’s pleading with him not to leave. Beyond that, Thursday contains funk-rock tracks like “Life of the Party” and “Heaven or Las Vegas.”
House of Balloons (2011) The Weeknd’s first of three 2011 mixtapes spawned his Billboard chart debut with “Wicked Games,” when it later appeared on Trilogy. The eerie intro track “High for This” introduces two running themes we’d learn to love: Piercing, despondent vocals against a disquieting backdrop. This was the mixtape that introduced us to the underworld of mind and spirit where Tesfaye’s anxious lyrics often take us. Bright spots like “The Morning” pave the way for Starboy’s exuberant peaks.
Kiss Land (2013). By the time The Weeknd released his first studio album in 2013, he’d already mastered the mixtape—Kiss Land ranks low on this list because conquering the new form took some time. The album is a worthy debut that doesn’t quite live up to the inventive R&B of his early releases, nor does it work as a cohesive EP. Those New Wave influences are back on “Wanderlust,” the album’s best song which earned a Pharrell remix. Kiss Land showed promise that Tesfaye’s best work was yet to come.