In our annual festive Naughty and Nice feature, AUX compiles the best and worst of the year in music.
It may have been Drake’s word of mouth that helped a previously unknown R&B artist named Abel Tesfaye into the public eye this year, but it was the young Torontonian’s music and his marketing approach—namely, his vehement evasiveness and his independence—that made him not only a list-topping, award-nominated stand out, but a game changer in 2011.
At the very end of 2010, Tesfaye uploaded a few songs he’d done with producers Martin “Doc” McKinney (of Esthero fame) and Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese to YouTube. The tracks, credited to The Weeknd, found their way onto Drake’s October’s Very Own blog, and into her greater OVO collective. While the nod and the songs were enough to stir a low-level hum, the buzz didn’t skyrocket until earlier this year, in March, when Drake himself tweeted Weeknd lyrics and links to more music. By the time the Weeknd’s debut, the House of Balloons mixtape, went online on March 21, Tesfaye had already made his way into the consciousness of Drake’s then two-million-plus followers, and, before the month was out, mainstream press followed suit.
The nocturnal, drug-addled, electro-tinged emo-R&B appealed to a whole new sect—people called it PBR&B, referring to the young ‘n’ hip music fans who dug it and the beer they drank, and lumped it to the breakout of Odd Future member Frank Ocean.
But no one was getting to the new enigma. For all the talk, Tesfaye wouldn’t talk. House of Balloons made the Polaris Music Prize shortlist, the first free download album ever to do so. He announced a show—his first ever—at Toronto’s Mod Club requesting “no guestlist, no cameras, no media,” just a little over a week before it would take place in July, sold tickets at a shoe store to a huge line, and played to a room that shouted along to every crooned word. He’d play again at the Molson Amphitheatre as part of Drake’s OVO Fest in August, when he also released a new mixtape, Thursday, the second of a three-part series (The third, Echoes of Silence, could conceivably drop at anytime).
Servers borked when Thursday hit 180,000 downloads in its first day. In September, he wouldn’t attend the Polaris Prize gala, not even for the chance of being handed a $30,000 cheque (it’d ultimately go to Arcade Fire). He cancelled a high-profile Vice gig in New York City and played shows in Guelph and London, ON, instead. He was commissioned to remix Lady Gaga and Florence and the Machine, and contributed to five tracks on mentor Drake’s new smash album Take Care. But he, or anyone else, still won’t say a word (unless you want to count Twitter), where Tesfaye is often vague or blissed out or sad or incoherent—in other words, so totally Weeknd).
Tesfaye brought a whole new set of eyes and level of respect to Toronto’s music scene, all without playing by any traditional music business rules. So long as he keeps that—and the stellar records—up, we’re content to never know another thing about him.
Return to the Naughty and Nice master list.