During his 2012 set at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, the Weeknd was every bit the fledgling artist.
Unsure of himself onstage or in front of thousands of screaming fans, his first showing in the desert didn’t deliver upon the hype surrounding his series of Internet mixtapes that celebrated unbridled hedonism. There was even a mass exodus toward Gotye (remember him?), who was playing on a nearby stage.
But what a difference a few years — and a few inescapable hits — makes. The singer, born Abel Tesfaye, has gone from Internet sensation to pop radio rainmaker to Oscar nominee in a little over a year.
And he did it all with a ballad about kinky sex.
“Earned It,” his slinky and titillating BDSM anthem lifted from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack, is a contender for original song at the 88th Academy Awards.
The track is nominated against Sam Smith’s Golden Globe-winning Bond theme “Writing’s On the Wall,” David Lang’s “Simple Song #3,” “Til It Happens To You” by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, and “Manta Ray” by J. Ralph and Antony and the Johnsons’ Antony Hegarty (the nods for “Till It Happens to You” and “Manta Ray” marked the first time in Oscar history that songs from two documentaries are nominated).
That a quasi-dirty tune such as “Earned It” is in the running for an Oscar speaks to the Weeknd’s bursting pop appeal. In fact, “Earned It” got the ball rolling on what ended up being a massive year for Tesfaye.
Released as the lead single from the soundtrack of the highly anticipated erotic drama, “Earned It” dominated radio, landing at No. 1 on the Top 40 chart and extended the Weeknd's audience further into pop territory months after “Love Me Harder," his fiery duet with Ariana Grande, landed him his first top 10 single.
The enigmatic singer then found redemption in the desert last spring with a smoldering, headlining Coachella set, which included a surprise mini-set from Kanye West one weekend.
Then came the new album that proved the Weeknd had a leap to bona fide pop star on the brain — and the expertly crafted tunes required to make it happen.
While his woozy single, “The Hills,” was a classic Weeknd track (seriously, no one does drug-soaked, emotionless sex tunes quite like he does), “Can’t Feel My Face” signaled his clearest, strongest play at mainstream stardom.
A collaboration with pop's most in-demand hit-builder, Max Martin, “Can’t Feel My Face” was instantly irresistible. The harmonies were tight, the hook sticky enough to move the masses and Martin’s composition recalled the disco-funk confections of “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson. It was the song of summer.
Both “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face” rocketed to the top of the charts, earning him his first No. 1 hits. His sophomore album, “Beauty Behind the Madness,” opened at the top of the chart as well, and a sold-out arena tour was launched shortly after the album’s release.
The Weeknd cemented his status with a bounty of Grammy nods late last year, including nominations for record and album of the year. Three of his seven nominations are for “Earned It.”
While it’s unlikely that his breakout moment will culminate with an Oscar — Warren and Gaga’s resilient rock ballad and Smith’s Bond theme are clear front-runners — it doesn’t matter. The Weeknd has managed to go from Internet curiosity to the top of the pops without straying far from his core.
That’s more impressive than any gold statue.
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