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 on the hype surrounding his Internet mixtapes. There was even a mass exodus toward Gotye, 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 anthem from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack, is a contender for original song at the Oscars. It’s up 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.
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 the artist.
Released as the lead single from the soundtrack, “Earned It” dominated radio, and extended the Weeknd’s audience further months after “Love Me Harder,” his fiery duet with Ariana Grande, landed him his first top 10 single. The singer then found redemption with a smoldering, headlining Coachella set.
Then came the new album that proved he had a leap to bona-fide pop star on the brain — and the expertly crafted tunes required to make it happen.
While single “The Hills” was classic Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face” signaled his clearest, strongest play at mainstream stardom.
Both “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face” rocketed to the top of the charts. His sophomore album, “Beauty Behind the Madness,” opened at the top of the chart as well.
The Weeknd cemented his status with a bounty of Grammy nods, including for record and album of the year. Three of his seven nods are for “Earned It.”
While it’s unlikely he’ll get an Oscar — Warren and Gaga’s ballad and Smith’s Bond theme are 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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