This year, I met Abel Tesfaye, who performs as the Weeknd, at an Oscars party. He said I would be excited when I heard his new album, After Hours, but didn’t tell me why. That seemed to sum him up. He’s a mysterious figure in an era when mystery is rare in pop. And you never know what to expect next. He plays with personae in his music and presentation: on the After Hours cover, he’s dripping in blood; you’re never sure if he’s singing about himself, or if he’s in character. He’s got an incredible imagination.
It turned out he’d used the chorus of “Your Song” on a track called “Scared to Live”—he was right, I was excited—but he’ll also sample the Smiths and Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke. “Blinding Lights” is 2020’s best pop single, very ’80s-influenced, but it’s from an album that’s otherwise very introspective. He has so many different types of music tucked up his sleeve that he incorporates into his vision. He’s not interested in commerciality for commerciality’s sake, but he’s one of the biggest-streaming artists on Spotify. Like Prince, he marches to his own beat. That’s an exemplary way for an artist to be.
John is a Grammy-, Tony- and Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter
The Weeknd was part of TIME’s 2018 Next Generation Leaders series.