How unsigned underdog Abel Tesfaye changed an entire genre and became pop music’s North Star.
It’s March 2007. Justin Timberlake is riding high off the success of his sophomore solo album, FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Produced almost entirely by Timbaland, GQ was already asking the Virginia veteran about the sound of its sequel. To provide a point of sonic reference, he threw a screwball: dance-punk outfit The Rapture.
The band’s 2002 hit “House of Jealous Lovers” served as a mood-setter for Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveShow Tour, ostensibly heralding a new era of rock-pop-R&B fusion set to change the trajectory of modern music for years to come.
That Timbaland x Timberlake album never happened.
Instead of JT taking on “House of Jealous Lovers,” the world got its introduction to a Toronto kid named Abel Tesfaye: 2011’s House of Balloons.
Far edgier, sexier, and moodier than anything sounding so beautiful before it, the debut mixtape from The Weeknd pushed pop, dance, and R&B into a new direction forecasted by Timbaland and Timberlake but reaching depths no palatable peers dare dive into.
Exploring the genre-shifting project in honor of its 12th anniversary this week, Boardroom breaks down the business and artistry behind a moment that birthed one of music’s biggest breadwinners.
You Don’t Know What’s In Store, But You Know What You’re Here For
During the grey days of Oct. 2010, the world as we know it was introduced to The Weeknd.
With Timberlake in the midst of a four-year musical hiatus, it was another former child star blessed beyond belief with talent that rolled out the red carpet for the next big thing in the business.
Aubrey Graham, a rising rapper first known for Degrassi fame north of the border, was quickly climbing the totem poll of hip-hop’s hottest artists. Going by his middle name and signed by Lil Wayne’s Young Money, Drake had the entire internet on tilt thanks to So Far Gone and recently released album Thank Me Later.
A product of the blog era himself, Aubrey also had his own online outlet that he ran with fellow Toronto talent. The site served mostly as updates for all things October’s Very Own, but on a gloomy October day it became a place to shed light on a new local artist.
“Drake had never pointed to anything before,” OVO Sound President Mr. Morgan told Boardroom in Februrary.
Logging into the backend, Drake uploaded a song called “Wicked Games” to his underground yet influential October’s Very Own Blogspot page. Within weeks, the first formal foray from The Weeknd was being reposted and written about by the likes of Pitchfork, Complex, and The New York Times.
Offering an invaluable co-sign, Drake gave the nod to a mysterious artist named Abel Tesfaye.
While Timberlake had grown up in the spotlight, Tesfaye literally lived in the shadows. His music was born from pain and partying, having spent a good portion of his young adulthood either homeless or incarcerated. Perhaps having no place to call his own during his formative years allowed him to form a sonic world that was all his own.
Instantaneously, the buzz built for the singer who sounded unlike any of R&B’s radio residents but was nonetheless beloved by Drake and his crew.
“[Drake] actually pointed to something that was actually as good as he said it was,” Morgan said. “It started a firestorm and then everyone is like, ‘You guys should sign The Weeknd!’ But there was no label.”
In the months that followed, an almost anonymous YouTube account tied to Tesfaye began uploading new songs such as “Loft Music,” “What You Need,” and “The Morning.” Fans feverishly waited for new Weeknd music — leaning most on Drake and OVO for updates — while reporters combed across Canada searching for the mysterious man few knew by name or face.
Taking place during the boom of the blog era and the advent of social media, the curiosity surrounding The Weeknd was a total zag compared to an onslaught of artists planking for attention or asking for likes and RTs to release their projects.
So, who was The Weekend, and when would they put out an actual album?
Finally, on March 21, 2011, The Weeknd’s first full-length mixtape, House of Balloons, was released on the artist’s website.
The tidal wave that began with Drake and OVO’s cheerleading would come to wash over an entire industry, eroding an era of R&B that Timbaland and Timberlake had left at the shore.
Rarely in the world of singer-songwriters does a talent strike gold while being almost entirely unknown.
Whether discovered in adolescence or doing legwork for stadium-sized acts behind the bleachers, many (if not most) of the music industry’s megastars get a jump on climbing the corporate ladder by virtue of being discovered in their youth. Those that don’t take the stage straight out of the crib often spend years penning hits for bigger acts before they ever actually achieve their own big break.
Neither narrative proves true for The Weeknd.
Working a gig at American Apparel by day and partying by night, Tesfaye crafted a signature sound quite literally in the dark. Inspired in strokes by Timbaland before him — note the Aaliyah sample on “What You Need” — and the OVO roster for R&B footing and nocturnal vibes, the likes of Cirkut, Don McKinney, Jeremy Rose, Rainer, and Illangeo all aligned on what became House of Balloons.
The timing was everything.
Releasing just two months after Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra appeared on Odd Future’s Tumblr page, a new current of crooners was introducing an aesthetic alternative to the sounds shaped by Timberlake, Usher, and Ne-Yo in the 2000s.
Not pandering to radio in catchiness or consumption, the early offerings from Frank and Abel existed almost entirely online before record execs knew entirely what to do with them.
Naturally, it was assumed Abel was to sign with Drake given the congenial Canadian nature and early co-sign. And while the two artists had a booming working relationship, the infrastructure to sign an artist of The Weeknd’s magnitude simply didn’t exist for Aubrey and Co. at that time.
“Initially, October’s Very Own existed as a blog,” Morgan said. “Drake and Oliver introduced the world to The Weeknd. I was like, ‘You’re introducing artists, should we do something here?’ They were like, ‘I guess, sure? What’s that mean?’ Those were the early conversations.”
While OVO was starting an internal dialogue in regard to becoming a proper label itself, industry veterans on the outside were wondering how they could capitalize on this unexpected wave. Behind the scenes, everyone was racing to sign the artist.
“October’s Very Own was a thing, but it wasn’t a label,” Morgan said. “At that time, no one had ever seen such excitement or conversation around something like House of Balloons.”
The nine-track template proved this was no one-hit-wonder situation or viral sensation. Seeing as the free download mixtape was already being hailed among the best projects of the year, both artist and sound had serious traction practically begging to be packaged and sold.
In time, thanks to multiple mentions on the OVO blog and placement on Take Care, fans of both artists by way of Drake all but assumed it was a done deal that Abel and Aubrey would be business partners. Still, Toronto’s top artist was earning the ears and eyes of press of all stripes.
Over the course of 2011, House of Balloons was named album of the year by Complex, with HBO’s Scott Venner sourcing songs for the final season of Entourage.
By 2012, the name had a face as The Weeknd landed gigs at Coachella, Ultra, Lollapalooza, and Wireless Festival. That September, he stunned many moguls, artists, and fans alike by signing with Republic Records.
And just like that, everything changed.
Pop Music’s North Star
In the dozen years since House of Balloons released, nothing’s been the same for both The Weeknd and modern pop music as a whole.
Since signing with Republic in 2012, he has re-upped on his initial contract for what may as well have been called the “supermax” in 2022.
Though much was made about The Weeknd not inking an agreement with OVO at the time of his arrival, both Aubrey and Abel have ascended as two of the most bankable artists on the planet.
In 2022, they both became the only artists to post two albums that moved the equivalent of one million units that year — a testament to their cash cow status in the age of streaming.
Over the past decade-plus, OVO has ascended from blog to boutique label, introducing the world to the likes of PARTYNEXTDOOR, Dvsn, and many more marquee names.
While an October upload in 2010 introduced the world to an artist soon set to give away his debut mixtape for free, The Weeknd has gone on to sell over 75 million albums worldwide.
From feature placement on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack to performing at the Super Bowl, the once-anonymous artist from Ontario has become an internationally known name and face, reaching the ears of more listeners around the world than any artist past, prior, or since.
It all started with a blog post, as his success crystallized Drake as a tastemaker and auteur.
Filling a void in a massive market, his sound has shifted an entire genre the way some critics thought Timberlake’s eventual FutureSex/LoveSounds sequel would.
In an odd twist of fate, the next time Timberlake took the stage to tour, it would not be music made by The Rapture that set the mood for his headlining set. Rather, it was The Weeknd who opened in 2013 for JT on The 20/20 Experience World Tour.
Having taken time off from music to pursue acting and get married, Timberlake shifted his sound to a more family-friendly brand of pop, leaving the edgier aesthetic to his opener.
While Abel and Justin may have been looking into different mirrors in 2013, hindsight shows that the unlikely underdog from Canada quickly became ready to push pop music to new places and hold the mantle as Billboard’s resident mold-breaker and chart-topper.
In 2023, new music from The Weeknd may not be as counter-culture as House of Balloons, but it’s certainly more massive.
As the artist aims to make his own pivots towards cinema and business, perhaps another unknown talent will pen and produce a project that tips the scales of modern music.
An album we perhaps will want to be Abel’s at the time, but that ultimately needs to belong to the next pop iconoclast on the up from the underground.
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