Abel Tesfaye lives on the verge of a constant overdose. Like any serious addict, he's hit rock bottom enough times to know there's always a deeper bottom, another level of desperation and bankruptcy previously unimaginable. Relationships destroyed, lives mangled, the next high is the most important thing, the only thing.
"Bring the drugs baby / I can bring the pain"
At least that's what a literal listening of The Weeknd's music would have you believe. Four years ago "Loft Music" started earning some attention in the further reaches of the R&B listening population and since then, thanks in no small part to a Drake co-sign, The Weeknd's grown into a full-fledged music phenomenon, and through it all his music has been about one thing - drugs. Well, sometimes sex, but even then, always sex before, during or after drugs. Before it became a coalesced album called Trilogy, his free album trilogy threw listeners into a world of inch-deep lines snorted off glass tables and codeine downed by the liter, right at a time when overdose R&B was emerging as a distinct sound. But while Frank Ocean went on to subtly shift down from songs about pills, The Weeknd has continued to go deeper, darker, the pills more abundant, the dosages more potent, which now begs the question - how much of this drug use is real? Is The Weeknd only snorting lines in his music the same way Rick Ross only has $92 million in his bank account on album skits? Or should we really be worried about a future in which we wake up with TMZ reporting tragic news about Abel, a fatal night and a Vegas hotel room?
"I ain't scared of the fall / I've felt the ground before"
Perhaps because it seems so blatant and obvious it rarely actually gets said out loud, but when it comes to The Weeknd's music we're not talking about drugs - that's nothing unique in music - we're talking about drugs. This isn't weed, not shots of Patron at the club, not molly. This is prescription painkillers, codeine, maybe heroin, definitely cocaine, although oddly for all the powder talk, The Weeknd's actual music sounds distinctly un-cocained. Coke is an upper, its regular practitioners tend to make accordingly flamboyant music, music that's completely wired, totally down to go build a tree fort right now let's go build a tree fort it'd be awesome to build a tree fort!!! Those who are in love with the coco aren't in love with the coco, they're IN LOVE WITH THE COCO!!! By contrast, The Weeknd's music is almost uniformly hazy, subtle, filled with underwater synths and desperately crooned notes. It's the epitome of downer music, but regardless of the exact mixture of drug cocktails found in the music, very little evidence of that sonic addiction have appeared in his personal life. Abel's notoriously private, almost never granting interviews, his Twitter primarily run by his marketing team, but we have yet to see much evidence of a life run off the rails by drugs. He recently came off an overnight lock up in Vegas, but who hasn't? There have been no incoherent interviews, no street fights, zero DUIs, none of the usual landmarks of celebrity addiction. But whether the extent of his imbibement is exaggerated in his music, he's an extraordinarily functional addict or a combination of both, by the time Kiss Land dropped in 2013, overdose R&B was becoming a dominant genre and The Weeknd was its infinitely relapsing king.
"I heard he do drugs now, wrong I've been on them for a minute"
If The Weeknd's rise had stopped there, as a nominally popular but not particularly huge artist, I wouldn't be writing this. But the last few months have seen The Weeknd truly explode into the mainstream. And not "mainstream" in the hip-hop bubble sense, where a few spins on Hot 97 constitute the apex of fame. I mean mainstream as in Mainstream America, as in songs with Ariana Grande, 45-year-old moms listening to "Earned It" on their way to pick the kids up from volleyball practice with their copy of Shades of Grey in the glove compartment, debuting songs at the Apple Music conference. We're watching The Weeknd make that leap into the brightest of spotlights, especially with "Can't Feel My Face" released right in time to become a serious song of the summer contender. "Can't Feel My Face" contains The Weeknd's usual themes of dysfunctional relationships fueled by dysfunctional drug use, but this time around set to the kind of bouncing bass line that recalls recent super hits "Happy" and "Lucky." It's his play for the kind of song that gets played over Six Flags speakers in July and it sounds damn good. Abel Tesfaye is about to be a very famous, very rich, hardcore drug addict, unless he isn't.
Addiction runs DNA deep in my family, it's the Slavik Trust Fund that never runs out. Some people get homes passed down through generations, grandma's antique jewelry collection, grandpa's classic Cadillac. We get a self-destructive trigger capable of going off with some decent opiates and a strong breeze. Grandpas, uncles, cousins, my father is the first male in two generations to live past 60-years-old; Slavik men are built to explode young. I've got my collection of problems, no need for the devil on your shoulder when he's already taken up residence in your brain, but I've dodged the addiction bullet, at least so far, and this deep into my life I just don't think I have it in me. I've watched hidden switches flip, most recently a cousin who's gone from alcoholism to sobriety to an oxy relapse so deep he lost his home and marriage in under two years, but although we both started with the same backyard barbecue beers, I've always been able to stop while his brakes exploded, and it's certainly not because I'm any better. I firmly believe the main reason I've never been crushed by the gravity of addiction's black hole is blind genetic luck. A twist of the helix, a coupling of a couple different chromosomes, and I'm sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups in church meeting rooms right alongside the ghost of my grandfather, and that's the nice way that story ends.
"The higher I climb / the harder I drop"
Still, I'm deeply suspicious of that last paragraph. I've shattered enough of my own good intentions to know I should never fully trust my brain when it says relax, you're fine, you're in control. That "I don't have the addiction gene" mindset could easily be a landmine of complacency and arrogance, ready to blow my life apart with a wrong step. I've got a long way to go before I can die without a rehab stint or overdose on my record, and so addiction's always on my mind, a constantly running current right under the surface of my everyday life.
"Watch us chase it / With a handful of pills, no chasers"
Which is why it's been so strange to watch The Weeknd blow up like this. I've kept Abel's music in steady rotation since the days when his identity was a secret. His way around a catchy harmony is undeniable, he's got an instantly identifiable style and to whatever degree he's singing from actual experience, there have been elements of his lyrical addiction I've related to. But especially in the last few months, seeing his brand of XOverdose R&B spotlighted on mainstream music's stage has been vaguely unsettling. Is this what watching wannabe drug dealer videos feels like when you're actually on the street, living the very real, deeply unglamorous life strangers are using polished versions of as escapist fantasy? I don't know, I don't know that life of poverty and drug dealing, going deeper into some sort of serious parallel would only further reveal my ignorance. But I do know addiction, what it looks like up close when someone's really at the bottom, buried under pills and drugs, and it doesn't look like orgies with supermodels. It looks like A$AP Yams, like Amy Winehouse, like Eminem before recovery, like Danny Brown fighting to quit lean, like ScHoolboy Q's daughter being unable to wake him up, like David Carr leaving his infant daughters alone to score crack, like my Uncle Jim's heart finally giving in after decades of chemical manipulation, dying alone on his living room floor. Actually, it looks a lot like flipping a car at 4 AM, except not everyone walks away alive and without a corporate record label turning the story into a hit video watched 22 million times in just a couple weeks.
I don't believe The Weeknd's music is going to create an epidemic of kids popping pills, or really doing any harm at all. Oxycontin doesn't need a celebrity endorsement to make it the drug of choice for thousands, and I'm not about to start the second coming of reefer madness. Music can be influential, but trap music alone doesn't convince people to move weight, and the Weeknd's ballads about lines on glass tables isn't sending otherwise sober kids scrambling for coke. At the most music can give a nudge to someone already standing on the edge; the world will gladly give up rock n' roll well before it ever considers stoping sex and doing drugs.
"Codeine cups paint a picture so vivid"
Still, you have to wonder how far the Weeknd's overdose R&B movement can go, both culturally and personally. Is mainstream America really about to make a R&B/pop song about hardcore narcotics its catchy, inescapable song of the summer? It looks like yes, yes it is. It has before, this is just the 2015 R&B version. Is Abel going to survive the life he sings about much longer? Now there's a clear answer - no. That kind of addiction only ends in death, jail or sobriety, there is no third option.* But if The Weeknd is a front of sorts, a character, a super-magnified version of Abel, if drug addiction is more of a stylistic choice, the '90s heroin chic wave brought back and set to a melody, than worrying about Abel actually overdosing is as overblown as taking Rick Ross seriously when he says he's talking to Noriega. Hopefully we'll never have to find out where The Weeknd's drug fantasies end and where reality starts, because if his music isn't a fantasy, reality's going to be a much darker place than mainstream America wants to see.
"When I'm fucked up, that's the real me"
* William Burroughts and Keith Richards being the most notable exceptions. Those guys somehow managed to do enough drugs to kill an adult elephant for decades and lived well into old age. It should be noted though, they both ended up looking like psychotic, elderly, breathing skeletons, so, you know, they didn't exactly escape unscathed.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast/radio form. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]