Two weeks ago, two men were photographed together backstage at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida. In the picture, they’re embracing with a kind of palpable sincerity you can’t fake; smiling, euphoric, like they’ve just pulled off the heist of the century and they’re only now able to breathe again for the first time — even as one puffs on a comically fat cigar.
One of these men is, arguably, the biggest male pop star on the planet — and, in all honesty, the only artist who even comes close to deserving that title today. The other, well, isn’t. In relatively short periods of time that run almost parallel — one first appearing in the late ’00s, the other in the very early ’10s — both have been plucked from bedroom obscurity and catapulted to a kind of stardom it’s hard to imagine that either quite expected. One of them is The Weeknd, but if you don’t know who Daniel Lopatin is, or you’re not familiar with the name Oneohtrix Point Never, then that’s something worth changing.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts (with roots so deep in that city, his moniker is actually a play on the name of a local radio station, Boston 106.7FM), Lopatin has been making music, in one form or another, for decades. First, as a kid — inspired by his dad’s Stevie Wonder tapes and a Roland Juno-60 he’d one day inherit — then, at high school, playing the synthesiser in bands with friends and at school events.
Graduating from Hampshire College in his home state, Lopatin moved to Brooklyn, the place he still calls home today, and graduated once again, this time from the school synth geek to a key member of the borough’s thriving noise scene, becoming a part of the same amorphous pool of constantly evolving talent that gave rise to the Sacred Bones record label and to intense, eviscerating acts like Margaret Chardiet’s Pharmakon.
Here, after a few releases under different names and with a slew of different collaborators, Lopatin devised Oneohtrix Point Never; a synth-led electronic music project that simultaneously riffed on New Age sounds, paired them with frantic sonic outbursts and melodic drones, mixed them with walls of harsh noise and panoramic vistas of masterful soundscaping, and also drew from his post-graduate education in archival studies to pass comment on memory, technology, and identity.
The result is confrontational, melodic, and entirely unique. Its cohesion as a project is a testament to Lopatin’s skills as a producer and a composer — an artist with an unparalleled talent for bringing together ideas from art, theory, music, philosophy, and popular culture, and the rare ability to balance them, turning them into music as compulsively listenable as it is overwhelming.
Of course, none of this exactly sounds like he should be backstage at the Super Bowl, working with The Weeknd as his musical director for one of the biggest gigs in the business. But there’s a reason that, in the caption to that Instagram post, Abel Tesfaye simply chose to say “got some help from a true genius” and let the work speak for itself, absolute in his convictions about Lopatin. And why wouldn’t he be? He may have scaled up considerably, but this wasn’t exactly the first Oneohtrix rodeo.
While Lopatin’s first three albums — Betrayed in the Octagon, Zones Without People, and Russian Mind — built him a dedicated fan base, and their collection on the compilation album Rifts brought widespread critical acclaim for Oneohtrix Point Never, 2010’s Returnal and 2011’s Replica set the stage for what was to come. 2013’s R Plus 7, his first record for WARP — the home of Aphex Twin and a host of other electronic pioneers and artistic visionaries — earned Lopatin more general attention from a broader scope of fans and critics.
And from other artists, too; by 2013, The Weeknd had already released three of his most critically acclaimed (if not most popular) works: the Trilogy mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Working at home as a largely faceless singer, songwriter, and producer of innovative, melancholy R&B, it’s hard to imagine someone with Tesfaye’s sonic predilections and preoccupations didn’t come across R7 — or at least a couple of its standout tracks, like “Boring Angel” (which spawned a collaborative project with the writer Melissa Broder) or “Americans” (which simply slaps).
If not, then surely his visual experimentations for 2015’s Garden of Delete — Lopatin’s breakout breakout record — and the complex storytelling for that album of explosive electronics and screeching guitar solos would have endeared him to Tesfaye and put him in good stead for the kind of absurd-scale world-building demanded by a Super Bowl halftime show.
Preemptive as that might be, that record and its predecessors nonetheless paved the way for Lopatin’s rapid career expansion — not only collaborating with the likes of FKA twigs on MAGDALENE and becoming an integral part of ANOHNI (along with Hudson Mohawke and the project’s namesake), but also moving into Hollywood. Working on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (a so-so movie with an incredible score) opened up the possibility of linking up with the Safdie brothers on Good Time and Uncut Gems — two genuinely incredible, intoxicating movies with two genuinely brilliant, hypnotic soundtracks, for which Lopatin has rightly received praise across the board.
And, of course, the Super Bowl wasn’t Lopatin and Tesfaye’s first collaboration either; The Weeknd executive produced 2020’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, an album of weird, electronic, often melancholy pop, followed up by a video for the synth-led, Weeknd-featuring slow-jam “No Nightmares” toward the end of the year. With its philosophical ruminations on celebrity iconography and the Self, and its Videodrome-referencing body horror aesthetics, it made for a perfect parallel to the narrative arc of The Weeknd’s After Hours.
“Symbols are manipulative,” Lopatin explained in a previously unpublished interview, speaking at the time about the rise of Pepe The Frog, though the concept translates just as easily to the spectacle of the Super Bowl. “They're extremely powerful: they're the stage of all kinds of dreaming and projecting — and that's why we love them so much. That’s why we make them, regenerate them, constantly change their meanings. We trade them in for other ones, we creep ourselves out with them, we use them as a source of tribal identification and a source of all kinds of codes.”
Even back in 2018, Lopatin was thinking about these themes in earnest; ideas that would play out on a much larger scale at the Raymond James Stadium on February 7, 2021. In some ways, this was a show decades in the making. We just didn’t know it.