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“Scarborough was stifling, and he constantly plotted ways to leave. He dropped out of high school when he was 17 and persuaded his best friend, La Mar Taylor, to join him. They met the first day of high school — Tesfaye noticed Taylor’s pink polo shirt — and the two quickly became partners in creative endeavors and, eventually, self-destruction. One day they pulled up in a van at Tesfaye’s home. Tesfaye went to his room, grabbed his mattress, dragged it out of the house and threw it in. His mother watched him grimly. ‘‘The worst look anyone could ever have,’’ he recalls. ‘‘She looked at me like she had failed.’’
“Tesfaye’s first major-label album of original material, ‘‘Kiss Land,’’ came out in 2013. It was a Technicolor version of his mixtapes, full of long, fluid, semistructured, absorptive songs about desire and suspicion, but it sold only 268,000 copies, and none of the several singles the label pushed to radio took hold. His fervent fan base remained steady — when he toured, they filled arenas for him — but the Weeknd was a superstar act only inside his own universe.
Stymied, he turned to Wendy Goldstein, the head of urban A&R at Republic, for advice. ‘‘The underperforming of that record in his own expectations of what it was supposed to do shook him to his core,’’ she says. ‘‘I said, ‘You wanna be the biggest in the world?’ He said, ‘I absolutely wanna be the biggest in the world.’ ’’ She and the newly malleable Tesfaye got to work. First, she arranged for him to record the duet he would perform with Ariana Grande at the A.M.A.s, ‘‘Love Me Harder.’’
“Jason Quenneville, who is known as DaHeala and is Tesfaye’s engineer and longtime musical collaborator, calls this album Tesfaye’s ‘‘O.K., fine, I’ll play ball’’ moment. ‘‘ ‘Kiss Land’ was, ‘O.K., let’s play baseball,’ but you’re swinging a plate of spaghetti,’’ he says. ‘‘Now it’s like, ‘Fine, I will apply myself, play ball with a ball and stick.’ ’’ Tesfaye has embraced pop’s soothing strictures. He speaks of songs in terms of major and minor keys, prehooks and hooks and bridges. ‘‘In that area, he’s even stronger than I thought,’’ says Jimmy Iovine, who tried to sign Tesfaye before leaving Interscope Records for Apple Music. ‘‘You would think he’d be breathing his own exhaust and shutting the world out, and he’s not doing that.’’