How Bucking Every Big R&B Trend Will (Probably) Make the Weeknd the Next Big R&B Star
Abel Tesfaye, the 22-year-old who goes by the Weeknd, is enjoying the first flush of his Next Big Thing success. His show tomorrow at Revolution, part of his first tour, sold out within a day of its tickets' release. Based on his buzz alone, he could easily fill a venue the next level up -- say, the Fillmore -- though creating a packed frenzy is probably the wisest move. (The booking, actually, recalls that of another current superstar -- Lady Gaga -- who played Revolution in early 2009, just as "Just Dance" bubbled over in the U.S.)
The music industry establishment will surely class the Weeknd as a quote "R&B" unquote act. Tesfaye is a young black man singing melodically over largely synthesized beats, and anyone fitting these broad qualifications usually gets shunted off as so. But the Weeknd has perhaps become the genre's next megastar by bucking all of its current conventions.
First and maybe most notably, there is the fact that he has given away all of his music to date -- House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. All three are proper albums that some have labeled "mixtapes" for no other reason than that they didn't come with a price tag. It's a safe bet that this wise marketing decision came instinctively for '90s baby Tesfaye, one that blended seamlessly with his similar inborn knack for social media.
A bit of early mystery, combined with striking album art, and, of course, streamable and downloadable fee music that was worth more than its price, all added up to instant reblog/retweet material. That kind of internet velocity still eludes most of the "urban" and pop radio establishment. While most of its biggest stars have embraced Twitter, the format as a whole is still shackled to the major-label system, one that prevents the velocity gained from giving music away.
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Of course there's also the music itself, which trades in neither the mainstream nor accepted "alternative" schools of R&B we've been fed. To date, R&B with any commercial potential has existed more or less solely in two camps: that of whatever's on the radio, and that of a more "neo-soul" style seen as an alternative to the former.
The Weeknd is neither. You won't find any retro string flourishes or throwback sounds in his alternative to the alternative. His sound, at least on the albums so far, is more purely electronic -- and yet it's nothing like the millennial prog-house regurgitations on which so many current pop stars rely. Instead, the Weeknd really holds more in common with the new crop of acts like SBTRKT, Clams Casino, et al., who aren't afraid of a little electro-soul bump and grind.
The Weeknd's backing-track selection is as exciting as his actual songwriting, churning among glitch, low-end bass, and even flourishes of dreamy indie and classic goth (hi, Beach House and Siouxsie samples). This is truly music of the postgenre generation, and the Weekend seems like one of the few artists with crossover potential to really grasp it.
His lyrics too are neither saccharine nor Serious with a capital S. Frank talk of drugs, sex, whatever -- it's a pitch-perfect blend of Gen-Y privileged angst and the fuck-it excess of the current YOLO zeitgeist.
Speaking of YOLO, of course, this is all to say nothing of the oh-so-effective co-sign from fellow Torontonian Drake, of course. No doubt the Weeknd's rise to sellout dates would have been far slower without the pinup's support, but it makes sense. Drake himself, while working a very mainstream blend of melody and genre, has always been the weird one of the radio bunch. He's prone to bouts of introspection and wee-hours regret in both his music and his live performances -- so perhaps Drake was the pree-Weeknd Weeknd? Or perhaps the Weeknd will figure out how to make a safe-for-radio banger while still spinning more tales of chemical-fueled sexcapades. It remains to be seen -- so bring out the glass tables.
Download all of his free albums to date below.
The Weeknd. 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 1, at Revolution, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are sold out. Click here.
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