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The Weeknd is seen here performing at the RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest in Ottawa on Sunday, July 15, 2012. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Weeknd is seen here performing at the RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest in Ottawa on Sunday, July 15, 2012. (PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

MUSIC

How The Weeknd became R&B’s next big thing Add to ...

The Weeknd takes a different tack entirely, coming across not as tough but as someone who is both scarred and culpable, wanting love but keenly aware of the pain that often comes with it. It’s as if Tesfaye’s stage name is a double-edged pun, suggesting both “the weekend,” with its promise of romance, relaxation and nightclub frolics, and “the weakened,” with its recognition of the emotional toll life takes.

Take, for example, Valerie, one of the newer tracks from Trilogy. It’s a song about cheating, and opens with Tesfaye sweetly intoning, “Come a time in a man’s life/When he must take responsibility for the choices he has made.” But that responsibility only goes as far as admitting that he’s unfaithful; by the second verse, he once again finds himself with “my hand on another girl.” Worse, although Valerie “can see through me,” she doesn’t act, but “choose[s] to never know.”

It sounds painful, awkward and real, an impression that’s only intensified by checking The Weeknd’s Twitter feed and finding this: “I want to apologize to Valerie. I had to do it.”

“You know, as interested as I am in him melodically, structurally and sonically, I’m probably most interested in him psychologically,” says Caramanica. “This is romance as nihilism, or maybe nihilism as romance – I don’t know which is the chicken, and which is the egg. But there’s an outrageous darkness to his perspective on relationships, and his perspective on interacting with women, and it’s interesting because it doesn’t feel abusive.”

“But there’s something scarred about these records,” he adds. “And if people are going to say he’s doing a new form of R&B, that to me is a much more interesting basis for a ‘new form of R&B.’ It feels like a fresh archetype, one I have not heard before. That’s way more exciting to me than, ‘Oh, he samples the Smiths’ or whatever.”

No doubt the mystery that surrounds The Weeknd only intensifies that darkness. At this point, the longest quote Tesfaye has given the press has been two words, when he told the trade magazine Billboard that getting all the samples cleared for Trilogy was “killing me.” It’s hard to build much of a psychological portrait around that.

Twitter and his blog help, but 140 characters reveal only so much. Tesfaye is, as a recent blog post put it, “a man of few words,” and much of what he sends out to the world concerns concert appearances and videos put online. But there are also endearingly modest shout-outs to his fans (e.g., “wow, you know you have read fans when they purchase music they’ve already had for years”), and occasional gnomic flashes of darkness that only add to his mystique. When he tweets, “don’t let nothing fool you, I’m alone in this. only time knows how it’ll all end,” is he talking about his band? His career? His life? All of the above?

It’s tempting to read his terseness as calculation rather than inclination, deriving less from shyness than an understanding that the less you reveal, the more easily you control your mystique. It is clear that he’s career-conscious and ambitious. Lennox says that the decision to repackage his mixtapes as Trilogy was “driven more by him than us,” inspired in part by Tesfaye’s understanding that, despite the prevalence of downloads, 58 per cent of the music purchased in Canada is bought in CD form. Says Lennox, “Abel recognized – as we did – that there was a missed opportunity.”

If The Weeknd’s mixtapes missed opportunities – that is, sales – Trilogy is more than making up the loss. Add in the exposure gained through his fall tour with Florence and the Machine, plus a set of sold-out headlining dates in New York and Toronto, and The Weeknd should be in excellent position to kick it up a notch with a new studio album next year.

Is he the new face of R&B? We’ll know better when the numbers are in. As Caramanica sees it, a key indicator will be how The Weeknd’s first-week sales compare to those for Usher and Chris Brown – two of the biggest stars in traditional R&B.

“I feel pretty confident The Weeknd is going to sell that as well, possibly better,” he says. “So if the guy who’s doing the ‘non-traditional’ thing is selling the most records, then you have to revise your understanding of what traditional is. And if you’re someone who is closer to the centre of what R&B has been, you’re hurting right now – and this guy is going to come along and basically clean your clock.”

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