You’ve probably heard mention of the Weeknd in the past year, and definitely if you get your music from the internet or have an eye on R&B. The gloomy cloud that’s hanging over the genre (see: Usher‘s “Climax”) might have originated with him, while his jagged, falsetto-ed recollections of the high life have become typical for stars like Drake. In 2011, he released three critically acclaimed mixtapes for free through his Tumblr, earning himself a record deal and a clutch of powerful friends. This week, those three tapes have been remastered and repacked as Trilogy, and early forecasts have it debuting at Number 2 on the Billboard charts next week (trailing, who else but One Direction). Who is this shady game changer with an earthly voice and good internet game?
1. Who is the Weeknd?
The Weeknd is actually just one guy, a 22-year-old Toronto singer named Abel Tesfaye, though he has some help on the production end from Doc Mckinney and Illangelo, and there is rumor that the Weeknd might once have been a group. He first arrived on the Internet in March of 2011 with an impressive nine-song mixtape called House of Ballons and an important Drake co-sign, but not much more than that. It was thought at the time that Drake’s main man, Noah “40” Shebib, might have been involved with the project, mostly because similar adeptness with mood and depravity. Such turned out not to be the case, but Drake and the Weeknd have stuck close and benefited from their relationship over the past year. Tesfaye remained as an apparition while working on his next two mixtapes, and has only recently been seen out and about with the likes of Diddy. However, to this day he has not given a single interview.
He first caught people’s attention with a song called “Wicked Games,” above, posted to his Tumblr and shared on Drake’s Octobers Very Own blog. The song turned out not to be a Chris Isaak cover, but rather a pained and aggressiveness grind that finds him looking for “what he needs” in a strip club. His voice was otherworldly, and the song earned him endearment from fans of R&B’s other rouge figures, like Frank Ocean, the XX, How to Dress Well and Miguel.
2. The Mixtapes
“Wicked Games” gave way to a House of Balloons, the Weeknd’s first mixtape, released for free in March of 2011. The nine song tape proved that “Wicked Games” was not a fluke, and was so good it had critics contemplating if R&B was forever changed just days after its release. He sings gleefully about the misery of long nights, plentiful drug stashes and vapid intimacy. Highlights include the languid the “What You Need,” Siouxsie and the Banshee sampling title track and the Aaliyah sample on “What You Need.”
Thursday arrived five months later, as delightfully skeezy as the last, but he’s left the party and so gone are the flickers of devilish enjoyment and recognizable indie samples. It’s a decidedly less celebratory and more haunting, made heavy by the dawning of post-party regret. It’s a more difficult record to penetrate, but it’s perhaps all the more ambitious for that. Stand outs include the truly disturbing “Life Of The Party,” which begins with a twisted “Ah, welcome to the other side” beckon; the guitar picked “Rolling Stone,” on which Tesfaye lets us into his shadow game when he sings, “Baby, I got you / Until you’re used to my face / And my mystery fades”; and “The Zone,” featuring Drake.
Echoes of Silence arrived just before Christmas that year, and with a burning cover of Michael Jackson‘s groupie kiss-off “Dirty Diana,” called “D.D.” “Baby, get familiar with the order,” he sings on “Initiation,” perhaps the truest approximation of his drug-fueled and intimacy-adverse aesthetic. “It’s a fucking celebration,” he insists, his voice drawing to a oozy crawl and then a high chirp as the night’s illicit offerings hit. In the end, he offers the girl he’s been hand-holding through it all to his friends. It’s exhausting just to hear.
3. Friends and Foe
Drake has been with Tesfaye since day one, and they call themselves the XO Gang — “xo” being a nod to a heavy headed hobby (ecstasy and oxycodone), not the “hugs and kisses” of an email sign off. Drake lent a verse to Tesfaye’s second mixtape, Thursday, and Tesfaye returned the favor by helping write Take Care and providing the hook for “Crew Love.” There were rumors for a minute that Diddy was interested in signing the Weeknd to his Bad Boy records, but mostly they just seem like friends.
Tesfaye has also been sure to ruffle a few feathers on his rise. He famously engaged in Twitter beef with R&B The-Dream. On stage in New York, the R&B hit man suggested that Tesfaye may have jocked his style — not an outrageous claim, given their similarly earthy-falsettos and aptitude for melody. Tesfaye wasn’t having the push back, though, and so he signed on to call him a “ham burglar lookin’ a** n****” and to warn that “I was raised old fashioned, you get at me, i get at you.” As for The-Dream, he took the whole incident well, maintaining his original claims, but this time padding it when praise: “you brought it renovated. Nice,” he wrote back.
Signed not to Republic, Tesfay is re-releasing his mixtapes as a bundle called Trilogy, out now. Short only the Aaliyah sample from “What You Need,” Trilogy instead includes three very impressive new songs — “Tweny Eight,” “Valerie,” and “Till Dawn-Here Comes The Sun” — and remastering that assures that drums hit heavier and guitars cut sharper. For fans new to the Weeknd, it’s a perfect introduction, assuming three-hours depravity isn’t too trying. And for those who have already downloaded the mixtapes, its a chance to hear the Weeknd’s story — the party, the regret and the next morning — in one, sharp package.
5. The Reviews Are In
A few days after its mysterious arrival, the Village Voice assumed the Weeknd a game changer and praised House of Ballons as “impressive:” “It’s patient, often gorgeous, and consistently louche–sex, drugs and drink seem to be the raison d’etre–with the sort of blown-out underbelly and echo-laden crooning that has already made Drake’s less-than-a-year-old Thank Me Later such an influential guidepost.”
The Guardian, on the other hand, was less impressed. Not sure if the Weeknd was changing R&B or those gushing over the Weeknd just weren’t paying enough attention in the first place, they concluded that “The Weeknd are thoroughly unremarkable.” “The disproportionate attention accorded to the Weeknd is reflective of an attitude towards R&B that just won’t seem to die: the further away it gets from its formalist roots, the more praise is lavished on it. Conversely, those artists catering to the genre’s core audience are ignored or dismissed.”
The New York Times has suggested that the Weeknd’s music is “spooky and aggressive goth-industrial R&B about drugs and dyspeptic relationships that owes debts to Prince, R. Kelly, Terence Trent D’Arby, Rick James and more” — you know, “fantastically foul stuff” — and that he has infiltrated R&B, Usher even including “post-Weeknd narcotic falsetto soul” on his last album.
Three hours of this might seem exhausting, but Pitchfork suggest that it’s worth it: “Trilogy‘s triumph is in how it makes its three hours feel necessary to fully embrace it all, to acknowledge its existence inside ourselves and to vicariously live through it as art.” We tend to agree.