In the music video for “Can’t Feel My Face,” the No. 1 single by the Weeknd, the artist flames out during a nightclub performance–literally. While he busts out dance moves for an increasingly hostile audience, one concertgoer hurls a lighter onstage and sets him ablaze. It’s only as he’s incinerated midset that the crowd starts to enjoy itself.
For a performer with arguably the hottest song of the summer, there’s a simple interpretation there for the taking: this guy’s career is on fire! And it is: 25-year-old Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, has been hailed by critics as the second coming of Michael Jackson and credited with bringing a new artistic integrity to R&B. But there’s a darker anxiety in that video too, about how the masses’ attention may end up consuming him.
When Tesfaye first began releasing music in 2010 as the Weeknd–intentionally misspelled to avoid confusion with Canadian rock band the Weekend–fans didn’t know his real name or what he looked like. They were just dazzled by his experimental, nightmarish odes to getting high and getting laid. As his profile rose, Tesfaye avoided attention, granting only a handful of interviews in his career. (He agreed to answer questions for this story over email.) He’s mysterious enough that were it not for the talons of dreadlocks crowning his head, he could probably walk the streets unrecognized–a rare luxury for an artist with the biggest song in the country.
That elusiveness didn’t stop him from becoming the poster boy for a darker, more intimate and more eclectic brand of R&B that’s emerged in the past half-decade. The Weeknd, alongside artists like introverted Internet favorite Frank Ocean, guitar-slinging sex god Miguel or even sensitive-guy rapper Drake, craft adventurous tunes that draw from an array of styles–electronic dance music, indie rock–so liberally that even dubbing them alternative R&B, as many critics have, can feel inadequate. Several artists routinely included in this bunch have expressed discontent with that term, which they dismiss as shorthand for black artists who sing. Tesfaye is one of the few who welcome it. “Alternative R&B is in my soul,” he says. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Yet after scoring three Top Five singles this year alone, Tesfaye is poised to prove that “alternative” has become anything but when his second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness, arrives Aug. 28. “I want to make pop cool again,” he says. “The only way I can do that is by being ambitious and grand.”
The son of Ethiopian immigrants, Tesfaye grew up in Toronto and dropped out of high school at age 17. He spent the next few years mostly broke, indulging in a haze of drug-fueled debauchery that provided fodder for three mixtapes, album-length batches of songs released for free online, in 2011. The material quickly impressed both critics and fellow Canadian Drake, who that year recruited Tesfaye for his album Take Care. But it wasn’t just the provocative lyrics or Tesfaye’s prolific output that caught their attention. There’s a cinematic quality to his music: songs often begin as movie trailers do, with gritty synthesizers and muffled percussion putting audiences on edge. A few tracks on his new studio album kick off with bursts of fuzzy distortion that would sound at home in a disaster flick. Tesfaye’s voice too can sound menacing and ghostly, like a call coming from inside the house.
After signing a record deal, Tesfaye repackaged his mixtapes as 2012’s platinum-selling compilation Trilogy and got to work on his studio debut, 2013’s Kiss Land. For that album, Tesfaye said he was inspired by directors like David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott while writing songs that captured the unfamiliarity and instability of life on the road. But after Kiss Land sold only a fraction of the copies of its predecessor, Tesfaye realized he cared more about success than he thought. “I just felt like I was selling myself short,” he says of deciding to finally embrace the spotlight. “I want the world to hear my music and see the movement my fans and I have created.”
Earlier this year, he cracked radio with a prominent spot on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, which sent his sensual slow jam “Earned It” to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. “I was arousing people’s curiosity,” he says. “It made me feel confident in myself before I started connecting with the monster hitmakers.”
Next he teamed up with Swedish producer Max Martin, one of those “monster hitmakers,” who’s written for Britney Spears and Katy Perry and recently oversaw Taylor Swift’s move from country star to Top 40 royalty. Martin and Tesfaye had first worked together on “Love Me Harder,” Tesfaye’s 2014 duet with pint-size diva Ariana Grande, and the experience was positive enough that Tesfaye asked Martin to inject some mainstream energy to balance his music’s darker edges. “I had to make it clear that when any producers work on my album, they would have to come into my world,” he says. “Max and I bashed heads, but it only made our relationship stronger. I knew that I was jumping into different waters, and he knew he was working with a different kind of artist.”
Beauty Behind the Madness doesn’t sound like labored compromise. The explosive Martin-produced single “Can’t Feel My Face” and its pulsing sibling “In the Night” are Tesfaye’s poppiest songs to date, but they’re anomalies on an album more concerned with drawing out the tension than finding release in climaxes. The songs are more sprawling than ever–“Losers” bumps along a booming West Coast rap beat and ends with a triumphant horn section–but more has stayed the same than not. Over throbbing drums on “Often,” Tesfaye brags about his bed-hopping prowess, which he once relied on for shelter during a period of homelessness. On the soulful Kanye West–produced “Tell Your Friends,” Tesfaye contends he’s still the man “with the hair singing ’bout poppin’ pills, f-cking bitches.”
R&B has long been tangled up in the bedsheets, but the Weeknd’s numbness and vulgarity set him apart from his peers. Miguel can be just as explicit about sex, but he also sings about pillow talk and the romance of mornings after. Drake has plenty of bedroom boasts, but his emotional rhymes have earned him the title of Rapper Most in Touch With His Feelings. For Ocean–who revealed before the release of his 2012 debut, Channel Orange, that some songs were about falling in love with a man–references to sex are subtler, present in his lyrics but rarely the main focus of his storytelling. (Miguel’s critically acclaimed Wildheart came out in June, while both Drake and Ocean have albums in the works.)
Yet for all the sex Tesfaye’s having, it doesn’t sound like it’s very much fun. “When I’m f-cked up, that’s the real me,” he sings on the twisted booty-call anthem “The Hills,” which references Wes Craven’s 1977 horror classic, The Hills Have Eyes. “[They’re] always trying to send me off to rehab/Drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf.”
For listeners uninterested in the erotic, the Weeknd will appeal mostly as a study of a man flirting with his demons instead of battling them. For his part, Tesfaye is unconcerned about alienating listeners with the graphic subject matter. “Is [Stanley] Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut not artistic?” he says. “Why can’t I paint a vivid picture in my lyrics? Art is art. If you can create something that can make people feel, then you are an artist.” Artistry, not popularity, is still the goal–even if he has to go up in flames.
This appears in the September 07, 2015 issue of TIME.