Pop

How Oneohtrix Point Never Became The Most Unlikely Hitmaking Force

In 2009, around the time a mysterious figure named The Weeknd began uploading druggy post-R&B tunes on YouTube, an electronic musician named Daniel Lopatin was compiling his best tracks — synth exercises, new age meditations, experimental noise collages — for a Brooklyn-based label called No Fun Productions. That album, Rifts, comprised 145 minutes of Lopatin’s strongest compositions as Oneohtrix Point Never. The project would situate him as a leading figure in a surprisingly robust underground, avant-pop scene. He began producing music for alt/indie-pop songwriters like Autre Ne Veut and Antony And The Johnsons. The Weeknd, on the other hand, propelled those early rumblings into a trilogy of mixtapes initially released anonymously, before revealing himself to be Abel Tesfaye of Toronto, Canada. Over a decade later, The Weeknd and Oneohtrix Point Never are the unlikeliest of collaborators — a synth nerd and a reluctant pop icon — but have thoroughly changed the landscape of mainstream music. How in the hell did that happen?

The Weeknd first encountered Lopatin’s music while watching Good Time, the psychedelically horrifying Safdie Brothers movie that OPN created the score for. According to an interview with Lopatin in GQ, the connection for The Weeknd and Lopatin was simple: “He [Tesfaye] was like, ‘I’d heard your music before, but now I understand.’” From there, both artists continued to populate the Safdie universe, The Weeknd in Uncut Gems and OPN as the film’s composer. Their connection solidified from there, with Lopatin joining some last-minute sessions for The Weeknd’s 2020 global smash, After Hours. He earned credits both as a writer and producer, contributing to three songs: “Scared To Live,” “Repeat After Me (Interlude),” and “Until I Bleed Out.”

The Lopatin-featuring songs on After Hours all betray brilliant, gauzy synthwork, and the sort of ambling, warbling bed of melodies OPN had continued to develop on his Warp Records releases, like 2018’s Age Of and 2020’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. The vocoded vocals, distant and disenchanted deliveries, and percussion used to accent instead of build became common in both of their works. Obviously, this is easier to point out now that we know they have such a profound influence on each others’ art, but in both of their music we could see the underground and mainstream veering ever closer together — a trend popular across music more generally. This allowed The Weeknd to take chances on his radio-bound hits, and Oneohtrix to look for pop gold on his album tracks.

This seems to be at the heart of their collaboration. This is more than a case of an underground artist cashing a major label check or a pop superstar looking at an experimental producer for cred amongst the cool kids. The Weeknd and Oneohtrix Point Never have a genuinely symbiotic relationship; sure, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never has Tesfaye listed as an executive producer and the album’s only featured guest — ”No Nightmares.” That certainly benefited OPN’s bottom line. But that track is immensely illustrative of how the two consistently meet each other halfway; it’s an outlier on the album, and one that betrays some of The Weeknd’s fingerprints.

This collaboration in particular, in addition to Lopatin’s role as musical director for Tesfaye’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, has put him in a unique position. He’s a beloved, boundary-pushing independent artist, but one that shadows as a pop songwriter, sitting in rooms alongside Max Martin as a Mad Hatter of sorts, proposing all sorts of wacky sounds while producers and hosts of hired guns go about the tedious work of crafting hit singles. (“[Illangelo] would be in there doing arduous stuff at the eleventh hour, and I’m popping over there like Kramer saying, ‘Hey, I just f*cked around with some synthesizers!,’” Lopatin explains during that same GQ interview.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s influence on The Weeknd has been in subtle, brilliant ways. The little things that make his songs great have been adapted and retrofitted for The Weeknd. Synth programming takes center stage, atmospheric interludes are used as ways to signal tension and release. But The Weeknd’s decision to associate himself with a relatively unknown experimental musician is very Kanye West-level “surrounding yourself with geniuses that highlight your genius is the truest sign of genius.” It’s easy to forget because of his monumental popularity, but The Weeknd began his career during the bloghouse boom. He stood alongside How To Dress Well as the prince of PBR&B — no matter how reductive and stupid that term is.

The star power was always there with Abel, but it took him a long time to find his lane. He wasn’t accepted within the critical zeitgeist until he released After Hours — when OPN joined the team. Pitchfork wasn’t exactly kind to Starboy. Before After Hours, Tesfaye was known as a formerly promising artist who sold that promise to go big. His ability to eventually cash in on that hype is a combination of brilliant decision making and constant improvement. Songwriting is a lot like working out. Muscles take time to grow. Oneohtrix Point Never is the dude you reach out to after setting a new PR while having perfect technique. OPN brought The Weeknd to new heights.

Daniel Lopatin’s impact on The Weeknd has obviously reached a fever pitch with Dawn FM, a new album from Tesfaye that sets itself up as a song cycle influenced by the role radio stations play in our lives. It’s not a coincidence that OPN’s latest album, Magic, is itself an ode to the magic that comes through the airwaves. Dawn FM is, in many ways, a stylistic sequel to Magic, though Tesfaye and OPN replace the latter’s samples of on-air chatter with interludes from Quincy Jones and Jim Carrey. The styles are similar, but Lopatin’s album is still way too weird for the playlists many of Dawn FM’s tracks have and will wind up on. It’s a credit to OPN that he can make his niche and strange concepts work on a capital-A album. It’s also a credit to The Weeknd that he’s willing to push the envelope of what pop can be. The desire to innovate has always been there for Abel Tesfaye, but all he needed was a little push from someone who believed in his vision. Enter: The Magic of Oneohtrix Point Never.

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