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Will The Weeknd be Abel to Cross Over to Pop?

We investigate whether the popular Toronto artist Abel Tesfaye's brand of dark R&B can win over the masses.
June 19, 2015, 3:10pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.

Judging by the career arc of Abel Tesfaye—better known to the world as The Weeknd—there may not be a drug on this planet as addictive as success. When he released a string of mixtapes in 2011 starting with House of Balloons, his sound was unique enough to shift the genre of R&B into a hazy new territory, dubbed by some as PBR&B. His success as a niche star seemed guaranteed with a potential Drake co-sign looming nearby and sonic content that appealed to an apathetic generation that didn’t bother concealing its recreational drug use. Before the world had even heard Tesfaye speak, he was already on his way to signing to Republic and releasing his debut studio album Kiss Land, which landed at number two on the Billboard 200 in its opening week. Up until that point, there was still a very good chance that the casual music listener didn’t even know what Tesfaye looked like. But now it almost feels like you’d have to go out of your way not to know The Weeknd by face—or at least by voice.

He’s spent the better part of last year headlining nearly every major festival, and he has worked with the largest pop stars in the world in Ariana Grande and Sia—not to mention appearing on the soundtrack for 50 Shades of Grey, one of the most popular movies of 2015. His latest single is “Can’t Feel My Face,” an unabashedly pop song formulated by Peter Svensson—the former guitarist for The Cardigans who has written songs for other notable Canadians like Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber—and Max Martin, a man who's been making earworm pop music since the boy band era in the mid 90s. But this shift toward appealing to the masses means that his sound is no longer as progressive as it once was. Instead, he is banking on his excellent vibrato to carry him towards mainstream success.

The Weeknd’s voice works in his own insular world, and it’s proven popular when it works in service of selling someone else’s vision. But the question remains as to whether The Weeknd can achieve the same effortless crossover success as he pushes his own music into the mainstream. Will his subject matter ultimately prove too dark for the pop realm?

Unlike Taylor Swift, an artist who has successfully and openly crossed the genre chasm between country and pop music thanks to producers like Max Martin, The Weeknd’s content isn’t nearly as family friendly. It’s one thing for the general public to be enamored with Miley Cyrus’s occasional potential mention of MDMA or “sizzurp,” but it’s another entirely for them to accept a star whose group’s motto is “XO till we overdose.” With that said, there’s a chance that artists like Miley have helped open up the lane a little wider for The Weeknd to sing about having sex, doing drugs, or having sex while doing drugs. The fact that Tesfaye is transitioning from R&B to pop may also work to his credit here, as a raunchier subject matter is already expected from R&B music. This may be a case of right place, right time, with the public generally coming around to the idea of hearing about opiates on the radio.

Songs with Sia and Ariana Grande have exposed him to a new audience of teens, while housewives everywhere know who he is thanks to “Earned It.” But a pop star is a musician who is idolized, and when you create an idol from a flawed character you run the risk of the cracks being enlarged whenever it’s most convenient. If Rick Ross can lose millions from a poorly timed MDMA reference on “UOENO” and a headlining act can be petitioned away from playing a public space due to old misogynist lyrics, is the climb to pop music stardom really worth it? Although there may be no reason for people to cry “negative influence” right now, it wouldn’t be difficult to turn The Weeknd into a villain if the public discourse were to fall that way—if, say, he started dating some rich teenager.

The only way to know how addicted you can be to success is to taste it, and maybe now that Abel Tesfaye has had his hit, he thinks it’s worth continuing to chase. We’ll see what his yet-to-be-announced album will sound like, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that it will be categorized in the “pop” genre when it’s released. Ultimately it will likely be a smart move, since there’s no reason for him to remain confined to a genre that he helped morph into what it is now. It’s the next logical step for an artist who is trying to grow. He’s worked hard to break out of the mold that he was cast in, and if he manages to achieve any pop success you can at least say he’s earned it.

Slava Pastuk is confident none of you missed the very subtle "Abel" pun in the headline. Follow him on Twitter.