It’s well-documented how a spell of quality play by a footballer seems to create its own exponential power, snowballing their confidence and sending them into a flow state of accurate passing and silky runs. And so it is with pop music, where a star will lock into what’s been described as their “imperial phase”, where every song they touch sparkles with the ineffable magic of pop: something that goes beyond good tunes to a much more complex compound of charisma and musicianship.
Even more palpably than Dua Lipa or Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd is the global pop star that is most obviously in this phase at the moment. Emerging a decade ago with bruised, introspective R&B that only the most jaded child in the playground would have stuck on their iPod, he’s now making music that seven-year-olds might enthusiastically bum-wiggle and fingerpoint to – as well as their teenage siblings and parents.
While still making chilly trap and moody ballads, he strode towards this audience with 2015’s funk-pop ode to the cocaine-like properties of new lust, Can’t Feel My Face, and fully embraced it with the coaxed-out loveliness of his 2016 Daft Punk collaboration I Feel It Coming. But it was with his 2020 album After Hours that he really accepted the mantle of pop megastar: synthpop single Blinding Lights became his biggest hit yet, and paired with Save Your Tears and In Your Eyes in an astonishing three-track climax, it was like being thrust into the final act of every great 80s romcom and action movie at once – the sonic equivalent of driving from an explosion while wearing sunglasses and kissing Phoebe Cates.
Flow state achieved, he parlays it into another titanic piece of pop: Take My Breath, his first brand new music since the After Hours material, which reconnects him with superproducer Max “Blinding Lights and every massive pop song of the last couple of decades” Martin.
A peacocking disco strut, the kind John Travolta might have walked along to with a mean look, is joined by twinkling synth arpeggiation as if reflecting off Giorgio Moroder’s waxed Testarossa. As so often, the lyrics are about a lightly drawn but presumably very attractive woman who is reckless and thus drawn to the Weeknd’s world of unethical non-monogamy, where sensations are fleeting – even nihilistically meaningless – but still hungrily chased.
“You’re way too young to end your life”, he tells her, which is a bit like the “don’t kill urself ur so sexy aha” meme made into music, and arguably there’s something a bit crass about invoking suicide for musical drama. But the Weeknd’s project is so thoroughly fleshed out now, such an extended exploration of the ennui of fame, lust and self-indulgence, that lines like this perhaps come with a little self-satirising wink.
The Weeknd’s persona and worldview – a deliberate construction that is quite different to Abel Tesfaye’s own, as he suggested in a GQ interview this week – was most elegantly sketched out in a line from his brilliant Portishead-aping single Belong to the World: “You belong to the loneliness of filling every need.” And the chorus melody of Take My Breath actually somewhat resembles the tumbling sadness of Belong to the World’s, but it’s as if the Weeknd has learned to love the pain and uncertainty. This spectacularly exuberant chorus, as his lover tells him to take her breath away (surely another Moroder homage), is about the joy of living in the moment, rather than the spiritual malaise of doing so.
The prowling synthwave of the middle eight (the kind of thing the Drive soundtrack re-popularised and a whole subgenre has grown up around) is certainly nostalgic, and yet Tesfaye, Martin and co-writers/producers Ahmad Balshe and Oscar Holter give such depth and high fidelity to the sound that it feels contemporary. It’s funky, but not fussily so – the cymbal that announces the chorus, placed simply and perfectly on the offbeat, invites everyone to execute a spin on a wedding dancefloor regardless of gymnastic ability or inebriation levels. The video has clubbers getting high by huffing on oxygen – while perhaps it’s an awkward image mid-pandemic, it also makes a neat and supremely self-confident point: pop as good as this generates a drug-like high in the listener on nothing stronger than air.
Perhaps the most important element that makes the Weeknd’s current smashes so profoundly enjoyable, though, is his voice itself. Earlier in his career, it was thinner-sounding, which was fine as it transmitted malaise effectively. But as his pop ambition has scaled up, he has clearly worked on improving his singing. His timbre is now rounded even as he makes his trademark pleading, and he positively moonwalks across tricky little melodic curlicues; he doesn’t jump up to his falsetto range but cruises into its altitude. It’s this seemingly effortless mastery that makes the Weeknd such a thrill, and Take My Breath an instant classic.