The Weeknd is the Best Artist of the Half Decade
It’s 2015, and Abel Tesfaye is the biggest rock star on the planet. As the Weeknd, He’s seamlessly transitioned from indie darling to icon. His style of creepy R&B has been copied by legions of artists. He’s worked with the biggest names in music. And let’s not forget, his music is fucking great. Simply put, of the handful of artists who’ve broken out in the 2010s, the Weeknd is the best of the bunch.
When the Weeknd first burst onto the scene, it wasn’t like he rocketed onto the top of the charts. His early music was both too crude and strange to play on the radio (though “High For This” and “Wicked Games” both recieved decent radio play). But Tesfaye’s music was never without an audience; anyone with half an ear to underground music was smothered in Weeknd hype until they finally gave in and finally put House Of Balloons on their iPhones, and subsequently fell in love with it.
But through all the Beach House samples and uses of the word “fuck”, there was always a pop element to the Weeknd. I mean, dude pulled off a Michael Jackson cover. this year, hefinally broke away from alt-R&B and went full pop on single “Can’t Feel My Face”. The result was a #1 single that took Abel’s penchant for drugs, added a phenomenal hook and a killer bassline, and replaced the blantant references to said drugs and sex with the classic pop metaphor: a woman. Suddenly, the Weeknd was for everyone. Songs like “In The Night” and Pharrell’s remix of “Wanderlust” only further prove the pop appeal of the Weeknd’s sound. It’s what separates Abel from the other good acts to come from the new decade; no breakout artist has been able to straddle the line between cult and mainstream appeal the way he has over the past five years.
If you weren’t tuned into the blogosphere during the Weeknd’s initial rise to fame, your first introduction to the music of Abel Tesfaye would most likely have been through his guest spot on Drake’s “Crew Love”. Essentially a Weeknd song with a Drake feature, it peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart. It was one of many Weeknd collaborations off of Drizzy’s massive sophomore effort Take Care, and while it’s still a Drake album through and through, it’s hard to imagine a Tesfaye-less world where Take Care exists. The same can be said about many a song, album, and career. Without the Weeknd, there’s no PARTYNEXTDOOR, no Post Malone, no Banks, no flood of Soundcloud and Bandcamp producers trying to recreate the magic Tesfaye and producer Illangelo conjured up during the Trilogy era. The Weeknd’s early style of syrupy, dreamy R&B is perfect for the molly-and-Tinder era we currently live in, and his massive fanbase proves it. No wonder everyone wants to sound like him.
Yet for all the mimicking that Abel’s music inspires, he’s never been hesitant to lend his voice to tracks. Not like there’s a shortage of artists who want it. His list of collaborators reads like an awards show list: Kanye West, Drake, Lorde, M.I.A., Disclosure, Ed Sheeran. But that’s only one side of Weeknd collaborations; all of the above artists have a defined sound, and mesh it with the Weeknd’s. It’s the artists who don’t have a signature feel to their music where the collaborations are most intriguing. Artists like Lil Wayne and Meek Mill have Weeknd guest appearances in their discography, but because of the lack of singularity in their music, they often come off as Weeknd songs with guest rap verses, so drenched in murky R&B it sometimes throws off the whole record (see: Dreams Worth More Than Money). It’s another nod to the Weeknd’s hold on the decade; artists will throw away an entire album direction because a Weeknd feature is that good. Who would think ruining the flow of a record would be such a compliment?
So the Weeknd started trends, has extensive collaborations and made hits. But trends die. Collaborations and hits can simply be the results of 15 minutes of fame. What separates Tesfaye from the Neon Indians and Ca$h Out’s of this world is that his music is actually spectacular. House Of Balloons, while less refined then later efforts, contains some of the strongest written material in Tesfaye’s discography (“High For This”, career high “The Morning”). Thursday and Echoes Of Silence are more fleshed out and better produced, with the latter being the best complete body of work the Weeknd has put out, and the closest thing to a perfect album he has. Beauty Behind The Madness is a phenomenal hybrid of Abel’s sound with elements of pop and rock music. Even speed bump Kiss Land contains a few gems. There’s plenty of artists that started a new style, only to watch someone else come along and perfect it. House Of Balloons is 4 years old, and we’re still waiting for someone to do it better.
Now, while there is tangible evidence that the Weeknd is, in fact, the best artist to emerge from the 2010s, it’s not like there aren’t contenders for the title. Kendrick Lamar, current best rapper alive, has dropped back to back classics but doesn’t have the influence that Tesfaye holds. The same goes for Drake, who’s biggest record to date is heavily indebted to the Weeknd. Frank Ocean doesn’t have enough material. Iceage hasn’t been able to break out. Janelle Monae may as well have the best R&B record of the decade, but hasn’t put out anything as forward-thinking or interesting since. The closest competitor is Austrailian psych-rocker Kevin Parker aka Tame Impala, who have 3 stellar records and are mostly responsible for psych’s reemergence. But at this point in time, psych rock hasn’t fully broken the mainstream the way the Weeknd’s style of R&B did. Perhaps it will, at one point, but in 2015, Abel is still king.
It’s not as if the Weeknd’s discography is flawless. Many a 2010s artist have put out a better record than Thursday or Kiss Land. But how many have been the stylistic influence behind the biggest rapper’s biggest album? How many have sold out stadiums before putting out a single commercial album, and then somehow managed to get infinitely more popular? Opinions are opinions, but when you look at the facts, nobody’s broken out in the past five and a half years like Abel Tesfaye.