On an unseasonably warm Sunday evening in November, local Toronto radio station Flow 93.5 FM has scored somewhat of a coup ― an exclusive live in-studio with Toronto's own Aubrey Drake Graham as he pushes his new album, the soon to be platinum selling sophomore effort Take Care. It's more love-in than actual interview ― Drizzy is gracious but humble to a fault as he gives props to touring DJ Future the Prince, shouts out crew members (of his massive creative team titled October's Very Own or OVO XO) such as producer/engineer Noah "40" Shebib, and casually dials up fellow Young Money mate and hip-hop heavyweight Lil Wayne. Surprisingly, Drake also calls up one Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, who is featured on five Take Care cuts.
It's stunning in the sense that this is the first time we are given a chance to hear notoriously publicity-shy Tesfaye talk, ever since the progressive R&B singer grabbed ears with the idiosyncratic House of Balloons mixtape in March. Amid the electric atmosphere, there's palpable apprehension as the reclusive Tesfaye speaks. Even talking with his mentor and cheerleader Drake, Tesfaye is tentative, speaking in a clipped but cordial tone. He's on a brief layover in Charlotte, NC, he explains, on his way back to Toronto.
"I'd rather not share it with the world," Tesfaye says cagily when Drake asks of his recent whereabouts. He offers up sincere thanks to his fans and his city before Drake ends the call.
And with that, he's gone.
It is this shrewdness that has fuelled the carefully cultivated mystique by the Weeknd and his Toronto-based team (which include Drake's longtime brand manager and OVO XO creative director Oliver El-Khabib). The now-infamous House of Balloons avant-R&B mixtape (produced by creative architects Carlo "Illangelo" Montagnese and multi-instrumentalist, Martin "Doc" McKinney of Esthero fame) with its audacious Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees samples garnered plaudits and accolades from mainstream press such as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. ("Debauchery is obviously nothing new in R&B, but this takes it a step further ― the drugs are harder, the come-ons feel predatory and lecherous, and the general feeling is self-hating rather than celebratory," reads the Pitchfork review.) The vividly nihilistic, party drug-fuelled imagery of House of Balloons racked up more than 200,000 downloads in the space of three weeks and introduced listeners to an intriguing new alternative R&B voice. The sundry official and unofficial YouTube videos (salacious R-rated affairs offering up casual drug use and female nudity) generated even more notoriety, while single "High for This" found a regular home on radio and on HBO promos for its final season of Entourage. The subsequent media buzz fuelled demand for the mixtape follow-up Thursday caused website servers to intermittently shut down ― but not before 180,000 downloads on the first day. The Weeknd earned a coveted spot on the 2011 Polaris Music Prize shortlist ― and predictably, he declined to appear at the awards gala.
Tesfaye's ascension has been remarkable in that he's bypassed the traditional method of doing things in the Canadian music biz. Not much is known about the reclusive, spotlight shy 21-year old. We know he's originally from Scarborough, ON, he's of Ethiopian heritage, and he's now residing somewhere in Toronto. We also know that in 2008, Tesfaye was one-third of a trio called the Noise, where he honed his craft and channelled his love for Michael Jackson flavoured R&B. In 2009, the Noise morphed into a writing and production unit, with Tesfaye going under the name the Weeknd, alongside local beatmaker Jeremy Rose but ― amid rumblings of internal conflict and disagreement ― Tesfaye and Rose (also known as Zodiac) abruptly ceased their partnership, effectively affirming the Weeknd as a solo act. It was in late 2010 where Tesfaye (now working with Illangelo and Doc) leaked a few tracks online, ultimately garnering the attention of Drake.
There's a definite sense of excitable industry intrigue over the whole state of affairs. There seems to be no concerted effort to land on a major, or even prominent independent, label. Repeated and persistent requests for interviews go ignored by Tesfaye and his OVO XO team, so far unswayed by magazine covers and major feature articles. Likewise, contacting Weeknd's associated bandmates and producers yield little insight, revealing only (via lawyers, agents and PR reps) that they've been forbidden to speak to media until Tesfaye gives the go-ahead. Public appearances are virtually non-existent, as are tour dates, save for a hastily assembled (and well-received) date last July in Toronto, followed up a showcase at Drake's annual OVO Fest and oddly, two gigs in southern Ontario (London and Guelph) in late fall. "He sang outrageously well, over woozy, narcotized rock by his stellar band, which was dressed all in black," praised Jon Caramanica about the Guelph gig in a November 20 article in The New York Times.
Tesfaye's emergence in 2011 paralleled that of R&B singer-songwriter (and affiliate of alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future) Frank Ocean, whose sparse, moody take on R&B with this year's Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape had many critics comparing the two. Both display broad musical palates, a huge underground buzz and showcase genre-bending ambitions that clearly attempt to redefine what contemporary soul sounds like in the new millennium. But if there's any comparison to be had, the Weeknd and XO crew apparently refuse to see it. "The only way you can compare frank ocean with The Weeknd iz if frank ocean happens to be wearing black boots too... XO," tweeted OVO XO crewmate Omari Shakir in March (presumably with Tesfaye's knowledge).
For those clamouring for the 411 on the Weeknd, the radio silence is deafening. For now, he's seemingly content to let the music speak for itself. Sheathed in an impenetrable cloak of anonymity, the Weeknd bides his time, on his time. Perhaps it's for the best ― the Canadian music landscape is littered with R&B could-have-beens and MC never-will-be's who tried to play (and got played by) the industry game. The strategy is as audacious as it is untested, a slavish devotion to ad hoc DIY marketing and a figurative middle digit for the way things have always been done. There's a definite sense of excitement to see if the XO team can crack that nut and create a definitive template for how to succeed as an urban artist in Canada. If the game plan is to follow Drake's commercial path ― slowly build up brand equity via underground mixtapes, get co-signed/mentored by an big name and then emerge on the other side with a media-friendly image and underground and commercial cred intact ― then Tesfaye appears to be on to something.
But there also lies the risk of losing momentum and goodwill by playing hard to get for too long. Should all the energy currently used in maintaining the mystery be better directed into his creative process? Will there be a perceptible and anticlimactic fan reaction once he decides to reveal himself?
Most suspect that Tesfaye will break his silence once Echoes of Silence, the appropriately titled third digital release of the House of Balloons trilogy. Ambiguously slated for a "fall 2011" release on his the-weeknd.com website, the mixtape has yet to see the light of day. But the something is obviously underway: Weeknd and Illangelo reworkings of Lady Gaga's "Marry The Night" and Florence & the Machine's "Shake it Out" caught attention, an official video for his song "The Knowing" (directed by French video director Mikael Colombu) should soon see the light of day and hip-hop producer 9th Wonder tweeted about sending beats the Weeknd's way in October, which hints at a major full-length effort in the works. Time will tell.