The music industry establishment will surely continue to class the Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) as quote-unquote R&B. The 22-year-old is a young black man singing melodically over largely synthesized beats, and anyone fitting those broad qualifications usually gets slotted as so. But the Weeknd has perhaps become the genre's next megastar by bucking all of its conventions.
Maybe most notably, there is the fact that he has given away all of his music — House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. All three are proper albums that are labeled mixtapes for no other reason than they didn't come with a price tag. It's a safe bet this wise marketing decision came instinctively to '90s baby Tesfaye, and one that blended seamlessly with his similarly inborn knack for social media.
A bit of early mystery combined with striking album art and freely downloadable music added up to instant reblog/retweet material. That kind of Internet velocity still eludes most of the so-called urban and pop radio establishment. Though most of its biggest stars have embraced Twitter, the format as a whole is still shackled to the major-label system, which continues to deny the promotional power of giving away music.
Of course, there's also the Weeknd's music itself, which trades in neither the mainstream nor accepted alternative schools of R&B. 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 — yet it's nothing like the millennial prog-house regurgitations on which so many current pop stars rely. Instead, Tesfaye really has more in common with the new crop of acts like SBTRKT, Clams Casino, et al., which aren't afraid of a little electro-soul bump and grind.
The Weeknd's exciting songwriting is matched by his backing-track selection — churning among glitch, low-end bass, and even flourishes of dreamy indie and classic goth. It is truly music of the postgenre generation, and Tesfaye seems like one of the few artists with crossover potential to really grasp it.
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His lyrics also are neither saccharine nor too serious. There's plenty of drugs, sex, and whatever, a pitch-perfect blend of Gen-Y privileged angst and the fuck-it excess of the current YOLO Zeitgeist.
Speaking of YOLO (an acronym for you only live once), it's no secret that Tesfaye has benefited immensely from the oh-so-effective co-sign of fellow Torontonian and emo-rapper extraordinaire Drake. No doubt the Weeknd's rise to sellout theater shows would have been far slower without the pinup's support, but the pair's friendship makes perfect sense. Drake, 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 pre-Weeknd Weeknd. Or perhaps the Weeknd will figure out how to make a safe-for-radio banger while still spinning tales of chemical-fueled sexcapades. But that all remains to be seen. Just bring out the glass tables.