It’s always a mug’s game to try to predict which songs will wind up atop the Billboard Hot 100, but let me just establish this up-front: I did not see The Weeknd’s “The Hills” coming. In fact, I am on record, here at Slate, on that very point. Six weeks ago, when The Weeknd’s infectious, Michael Jackson–invoking “Can’t Feel My Face” hit No. 1 and I wrote about it for this Slate series, I only briefly mentioned its brother single “The Hills,” which to that point had gotten as high as No. 10 on the Hot 100. But the man born Abel Tesfaye has become such a big star so rapidly that this week, the song I called a “radio-unfriendly amuse-bouche” managed to knock his own hit “Face” out of the top slot.
Why “amuse-bouche”? Because “Hills” actually preceded “Face” in the order of Weeknd singles. It was positioned as more of a teaser track for his future No. 1 album Beauty Behind the Madness than a frontline single per se.
And I said “radio-unfriendly” because … well, just listen to it. Unlike the Max Martin–produced tracks that Tesfaye conceived for the album as radio hits, “The Hills”—coproduced by Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese, a longtime Tesfaye collaborator since his mixtape days, and Emmanuel “Mano” Nickerson—reads instead as a throwback to the bleary, sinister sound of the Weeknd’s early indie EPs. The song opens with a monstrous, atonal synth blast that sounds like a David Lynch fever dream, and it closes with a barely audible chant in his parents’ native Ethopian tongue Amharic. In-between, the chorus is so burnt-out and distorted, The Weeknd’s straining falsetto is practically in the red.
And the lyrics… good heavens! The blunt, shameless second verse finds the singer describing multiple conquests, dropping the most prominent of the song’s several F-bombs, and recounting drug intake that would fell a horse: “I just fucked two bitches ’fore I saw you … Drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf.” (Tesfaye has been delivering such downer-lothario lyrics for years, and some critics have begun calling him on his self-aggrandizing self-loathing shtick.) To be sure, “The Hills” is catchy, oddly so—especially its mesmerizing chorus, which recalls a much darker Jackson song, “Dirty Diana” (a song Tesfaye has covered before). But by the time Abel winds up the record—squealing, in homage to late horror director Wes Craven, “The hills have eyes, the hills have eyes/Who are you to judge?”—you kind of want to take a shower. Anyway, so much for my theories about radio-friendliness: An FCC-skirting edit of “The Hills” now has the third-largest airplay audience in the country, behind only an Ed Sheeran song and The Weeknd’s own “Face.”
When it materialized late last spring, “The Hills” had such a brief moment in the spotlight that it looked more like a proof of concept than a single. Abel and his boys were showing they could still go hard, dystopian, and nasty. It deliberately sounded neither like the single that preceded it—“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey, a huge radio hit that, for all its moodiness, read as a classic booty-call jam à la Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good”—or its successor, “Can’t Feel My Face,” which dropped just a couple of weeks later.
All summer long, “The Hills” knocked around the middle reaches of the Top 40, getting as low as No. 23 while “Can’t Feel My Face” rapidly scaled the chart. Shortly after “Face” topped the Hot 100 in mid-August, “Hills” reversed course and broke into the Top Five, suggesting that The Weeknd’s thousands of new fans were hungrily sampling anything novel from him—like ’90s TV viewers devouring summer reruns. A month later, driven in large part by heavy streaming numbers, “Hills” wound up toppling “Face.” Unsurprisingly, that rubbernecking video was a major factor. On Vevo, views of the spooky “Hills” clip are at 215 million at this writing and climbing—about two and a half times those of the club-centric “Face” video.
Pop listeners have a history of catching on to an artist’s older singles after the act finally breaks through with something new. It’s happened several times throughout the decades—examples include the Beatles, whose fourth U.S. No. 1 hit in 1964 was actually their first 1962 single, “Love Me Do,” as America tardily caught up with Beatlemania. Or Duran Duran, who broke in America with Rio’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” in 1983 but pulled one last U.S. single from Rio, “Save a Prayer,” in 1985, well after the release of Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Or Paula Abdul, who dropped two failed singles in 1988 and then, after finally breaking on the charts in 1989, was able to turn one of those early tracks, “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” into a No. 3 hit in late ’89.
Perhaps the best analogy to The Weeknd’s current situation, however, is L.A. metal legends Guns n’ Roses, whose breakthrough took more than a year and a lot of backroom persuasion. Even by late-’80s hair-metal standards, the screeching GnR were not seen as radio material, and Geffen Records spent months convincing an anxious MTV to play the lurid video for the band’s 1987 single “Welcome to the Jungle” at an hour other than 5 a.m. After GnR finally broke through in the summer of ’88 with their chart-topping, hard-but-sweet love ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Geffen turned back to “Jungle” and reissued it as a single. Finally a known quantity at radio, GnR saw the song, once perceived as irredeemably demonic (“You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna diiiiiiieeeee …”), fly straight into the Billboard Top 10.
With its creepy video and depraved themes, “The Hills” is The Weeknd’s own “Welcome to the Jungle”: the dark deep cut, improbably and belatedly turned into a smash. But GnR’s “Jungle” only made it to No. 7 on the Hot 100; “The Hills” has gone all the way to the top. Pardon my pearl-clutching, but looking back through the more than 1,000 songs that have topped Billboard’s Hot 100 since the ’50s, it’s hard to find a single as unremittingly dark and frank (another quote: “All these motherfuckers want a relapse”) topping the chart that the late Casey Kasem used to count down.
To be sure, we’ve seen some nasty little records reach No. 1: a late ’60s Southern gothic murder ballad; ’70s soul records about parental abandonment and adultery; ’80s new-wave odes to stalker surveillance and inner-city pressure; ’00s hip-hop jams offering thin metaphors for oral gratification. But even the tawdriest of these songs offered leavening melodicism or a thin veneer of double-entendre. Whereas, generally, if a record is as overtly lewd as 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” (No. 26, 1989) or Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” (No. 41, 1994) it will peak quite a ways down the chart. Even the catchiest songs with prominent F-bombs generally miss the No. 1 slot: Both Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You!” and Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” topped out at No. 2 in 2011; and Akon and Snoop Dogg’s “I Wanna Fuck You” reached No. 1 in 2006, but only in its fully censored, lyric-swapped form. Anyway, all of these songs sound more like traditional pop hits than “The Hills.”
There’s maybe only one No. 1 smash, in all the years of the Hot 100, that The Weeknd’s latest resembles in its brashness, rawness and radio incongruity. That would be Madonna’s infamous, immortal “Justify My Love,” which topped the chart for two weeks in January 1991. The Weeknd’s current hit is more lyrically explicit than Madonna’s classic—the harshest lines she utters in her sprechgesang sex-rap are “You put this in me” and “I’m open and ready”—but “Justify” evens the tally with its notorious video, which is far more lewd than his. What the two songs share more than anything is a weird, dissonant, skeletal structure utterly at odds with normal Top 40 fare. Madonna’s hit never topped Billboard’s Radio Songs chart and was largely driven to No. 1 on the Hot 100 by consumer sales, especially of its novel VHS release, the bestselling video single of all time. “The Hills,” too, has benefited from breathlessness over its video, in an age when video play actually counts for the chart.
The biggest difference between Abel Tesfaye and Madonna Louise Ciccone, however, is where each artist was in his or her career when scoring that shocking hit. Madonna in 1991 was a long-established megastar issuing a jam-packed greatest-hits album (“Justify” was a new single, and yet another No. 1, on the now diamond-certified The Immaculate Collection). Anything she released at that moment was poised to dominate the charts. Whereas The Weeknd is a still-rising star who hadn’t had even one Top 40 hit as recently as one year ago.
If the raunchy “The Hills” is indeed The Weeknd’s “Justify My Love,” it’s at least a half-decade ahead of schedule. It’s rather early to call him imperial, and anyway many young acts who’ve scored two quick chart-toppers have later had trouble following them up. Having already tested the bounds of what the pop audience will accept way sooner than expected, he will likely revert to the Max Martin crowd-pleaser route with the widely anticipated Jackson-esque single “In the Night.” Comparisons with Michael, comparisons with Madonna: The Weeknd has had a very, very good year. Now all he needs to seal the deal is to have another one.