Who is Abel Tesfaye?

If I asked you who was the top male solo artist of 2015 so far, you’d have several names from which to choose, as it’s been a good year for male singers (and rappers) overall.

For instance, Sam Smith, the soulful British crooner who swept the Grammys with Best New Artist, Record and Song of the Year awards earlier this year with his breakthrough single, “Stay With Me” (from 2014), comes to mind.

As does fellow Brit, Ed Sheeran, whose “Thinking Out Loud” has been in the top 40 all year and is now the oldest song on the Billboard Hot 100 (at 45 weeks and counting).

Then there’s Fetty Wap, the new-to-the-scene, 25-year-old New Jersey-based rapper whose first big hit, “Trap Queen,” moved  into the top ten of the Hot 100 in March and is still there five months later (this single was also originally released in 2014).  Fetty now has four songs riding the top-40 region of the Hot 100, including two in the top ten (where “My Way” joins “Trap Queen”).

Of course, there’s the ever-present Drake, whose “mix-tape” album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is the biggest-selling release of 2015, having just reached 1 million units sold (the only platinum-selling release of this year so far).  He also set a record earlier this year when he simultaneously had 14 tracks (most were from that album) on the Hot 100.  He still has five songs on this week’s chart, including his collabo with fellow rapper, and current beef-target, Meek Mill.

But another “newish” artist has dominated the airwaves in 2015 with an array of radio-friendly singles that have been the toast of the industry these past eight months.

Abel Tesfaye, AKA, The Weeknd

Beginning with his huge hit, “Earned It,” which topped out at #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart earlier this year, Canadian alternative R&B artist, The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) has now placed three singles in the top five of both charts (pop and R&B) and, with his album yet to be released, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

The album Beauty Behind The Madness, is being released Friday, August 28, and will contain at least the last two singles, “Can’t Feel My Face,” which became his first #1 pop hit last week, and “The Hills,” the eerie sounding, f-bomb laden lead-off single which just this week bounced into the top five on the Hot 100 and could become his next #1.  It’s not been confirmed whether the album will contain “Earned It,” which, by my estimates, will rank as one of the five biggest singles of 2015 when the numbers are tallied at the end of the year.  That song was featured on the soundtrack to the motion picture Fifty Shades of Grey.

All of this success comes after The Weeknd’s first top ten hit from late last year, a duet with Ariana Grande (whose own career may have taken a huge hit with the recent flap about her criticism of America).  That duet, “Love Me Harder,” was still riding the top ten in early January (having peaked at #7 in December 2014) and was the subject of a DJRob article – in fact my first – from back in January where I lamented the state of black music after Tasfaye’s exit from the top ten marked the end of an incredible 27-year streak of black artists’ continuous presence in that upper echelon of the chart, which began with Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” in March 1988.

Little did I know then that Tesfaye would become arguably the biggest male solo artist of the year (and second-biggest overall behind Taylor Swift) with his subsequent single releases.  The quality of his music along with the marketing genius of his record label, XO/Republic, has likely set him up for a huge opening weekend for the new album, which is almost guaranteed a #1 début on the Billboard 200 in its first week of eligibility (likely the chart dated September 19, 2015).

The Weeknd’s second proper album, Beauty Behind the Madness, is expected to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 when it is eligible after its August 28 release.

So, who exactly is Abel Tesfaye, this artist we’ve listened to all year and whose album many contemporary music fans are eagerly anticipating?

Well, he’s not as “new” as people might think.  The 25-year-old singer, who was born in Scarborough Canada, but is of Ethiopian descent, released music as far back as 2010, albeit of the mix-tape variety.  His first “official” album was the 2013 release, Kiss Land, which reached #2 on the Billboard 200 and has sold nearly 300,000 units to date.  (By the way, this next album will probably sell that much in its first week.)  The Kiss Land album charted in the top 100 of several other countries, including Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.K.

So essentially, The Weeknd was a known entity – at least musically – even before his true breakthrough success this year, and because of that fact, he will be ineligible for any Best New Artist Grammy awards for this year.

The Weeknd is billed primarily as an alternative R&B musician.  Wikipedia goes a step further and defines his genre as PBR&B, an acronym coined in 2011 whose etymology traces to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (which has been associated with the hipster subculture) and R&B.  Whatever one calls it, it’s safe to say that Tesfaye cannot be pigeonholed within the more traditional, mainstream R&B genre because of the complexity and originality of his music.  For the most part, he (thankfully) isn’t following the formula that so many of his R&B contemporaries and forefathers have followed for the past several decades.  The Weeknd is bringing much more to the table.

First, with the pop-leaning, but plaintive double entendre “Love Me Harder” with Grande, he exposed radio to his vocal prowess and his ability to go toe-to-toe with last year’s pop princess.  Then, with “Earned It,” the Fifty Shades of Grey opus, he further stretched his vocal range into a falsetto alongside an orchestral musical arrangement that was unlike anything pop or R&B radio had heard since arguably the 1970s.  It’s no wonder the song is still in the top 40 after six months of charting.

“Can’t Feel My Face” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending August 22, 2015, becoming The Weeknd’s first #1 pop hit.

Then there’s the more dance-oriented “Can’t Feel My Face,” a song co-written by Tesfaye and Max Martin.  The song’s rise to #1 on the Hot 100 last week gave Martin his 21st #1 single as a writer, more than anyone else in the past 18 years.  Critics have favorably compared the song’s sound to that of Michael Jackson, circa 1983.  One reviewer went as far as to say the song’s bassline could have come from an “alternate-dimension ‘Thriller‘ produced by New Age composer Vangelis instead of Quincy Jones.”

Finally, there’s “The Hills,” which moved from 11-5 on this week’s Hot 100 and is poised to become his next top three hit.  It’s perhaps his most raw effort to-date (at least from this year’s crop of hits) and describes – as one review puts it – the singer’s “meditation on lust, drugs, and fame.”  It’s a dark song co-written by Tesfaye, which borrows some of its music from the movie soundtrack of Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes, which Tesfaye references in the song’s bridge.  It’s been another critical favorite despite its liberal use of the f-word and lewd references to what the singer does at “half-past-five.”

And, as I mentioned before, The Weeknd and his label apparently have a lot of marketing savvy.   Tesfaye has not been shy about promoting these songs.  He’s appeared in many music festivals over the past 2 years, including the Lollapalooza Festival here in Chicago this past month.   He’s also shown up on stage or opened at other superstars’ concerts, including those of Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Drake.  He is scheduled to perform his #1 hit, “Can’t Feel My Face,” at the MTV Video Awards on Sunday, August 30, just two days after his album’s release, an opportunity that no pop artist should ignore, even in this non-music-video age of MTV.

So, who is Abel Tesfaye?  He’s the artist we’ve come to know as The Weeknd.  And what we do know about The Weeknd, at least based on this year’s musical output, is that he’s not your typical R&B artist.  He’s stretched the boundaries of R&B music to dimensions that have gone beyond the run-of-the-mill fare that has dogged the genre (and to a much lesser degree, pop music) for the past couple of decades and made it more listenable (and accessible) to a larger audience.

As a result, the Weeknd is arguably the top male solo artist of 2015, with a promising future that will likely make him a musical force to be reckoned with many years from now.

You can hear The Weeknd’s music on any streaming site, Vevo, YouTube or other music stores.

As always, thanks for all the love and support.