The Weeknd: Hipster Poster-Boy or R&B Saviour?

The Canadian has been taken to the heart of the music press, but there's still a jury out on whether he's a true original...
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The Canadian has been taken to the heart of the music press, but there's still a jury out on whether he's a true original...

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Ask anyone about The Weeknd and you’ll generally receive two kinds of response, either one of suspicion or intense adoration; his soulful melancholia has divided hardcore R n' B fans and bandwagon hipsters into a classic love/hate schism which, along with a flurry of critical acclaim, begs the question – who really listens to The Weeknd?

Real name, Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd has been hotly tipped as the saviour, or perhaps more accurately, the re-inventor of RnB music, for a couple of years now, despite having released only several mixtapes and one album proper, "Trilogy" (2012), with minimal publicity or touring.

Now hitting his stride, The Weeknd is poised to take Europe and the US by storm, with another album due in this year, which will be his first of so-far unreleased material. But what’s the big deal, what makes The Weeknd stand out from the rest and is he a genuine game-changer, or another example of the latest bright young thing, set to burnout as quickly as his torch was suddenly lit and his flame went into supernova?

When I think of R n' B, my mind is cast straight back to my 90s childhood when it seemed to be all over the charts, over-produced backing tracks and sloppy love songs, made for a faster-paced kind of easy-listening, and a slow coma-death by naïve romance. Fast forward to the present and I’m near-oblivious to the wealth of RnB artists who seem to blend into the feckless money/girls/guns miasma of so many hip-hop copycats who only have to be seen to be playing the game in order to appear credible to unwitting youngsters who wish to buy more into an increasingly narrow lifestyle choice. The Grime scene can be seen as a uniquely idiosyncratic reaction to that, with a (sorry) grittier take on highlighting new perspectives of growing up in the UK, exploring cultural divides and crossovers and exploring wordplay within and out from the variety of British dialects.

In a similar fashion, what makes The Weeknd stand out from his peers is his background culture, a French-speaking Canadian from Montreal, his vocal delivery is often withdrawn and more nuanced than traditional American R n' B, with shifts in tone, volume and intensity often lacking from most straight-to-mic, autotuned RnB cliché. This great versatility, switching between stark falsetto and anger sucks the chauvinist braggadocio, so innate and immensely tiresome, of mainstream hip-hop and R n' B, particularly when it is taken so seriously by so many. To hear The Weeknd at his most powerful, listen to him out-Jackson MJ on his cover of Dirty Diana.

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Musically, many of his songs sound messed-up, the vocals and beats disjointed, like a bruised and battered body, limping on from one affair to the next party carrying his worn-out soul and an attitude of vicious ambivalence and crushing self-awareness lifted straight from the antisocial heroes and heroines normally found in the dazed and confused novels of the comedown king, Bret Easton-Ellis. The tracks verge on collapse before tightening up again and expanding dreamily, often using samples of indie classics, such as Cocteau Twins or Siouxsie and The Banshees. In keeping with this, many of the voices are soaked into distant reverbs and echoes, as if you’re overhearing a vocal take halfway down the street. This is in keeping with The Weeknd’s mystique as he veers from searingly direct takes to whispered tales of lust and innocence lost where the powerful voice takes a step back into shadow and delivers from a cold remove.

The song often remains the same, the mood of sad-sweet melancholy lingers like tired smoke, which, if you’re in the right frame of mind, makes for perfect mood music.

So much of his lyrics deal on fractious relationships, but unlike his enlightened peers, there is no need to shoehorn in wider social themes, The Weeknd seems to sing direct from the heart, offering up vignettes from his own life, much of which carries a deathly, post-party atmosphere.

Along with Frank Ocean, Lupe Fiasco, The Weeknd is ushering in a more nuanced and grown-up image that blends the intensity and wordplay of hip-hop with the soulful vocals of R n' B, genres which have so far become tarred with the same brush of crime/bitches/guns/money. This leaves The Weeknd poised in a unique stance, broadening the narrow confines of stale RnB and branching out with the influence of other genres. And he’s only 22.