“Changing the game” and “takin’ it to the next level” are both well-worn clichés in hip-hop and R&B. Everyone in these competitive genres, it seems, feels like they’re bringing something new to the table. That’s another empty cliché. Since the ’90s, both forms of music have received some criticism for abandoning creativity and churning out the same old, same old.

Enter Toronto’s The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye), one of a handful of artists who’s helping restore widespread faith and critical respect in both genres.

A prodigious talent, the 20-something artist has already done something unheard of in music: in the space of nine months last year, he released three albums, House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, and posted them online, where they could be downloaded for free, just as if they were mixtapes. House of Balloons reportedly racked up more than 200,000 downloads in the first three weeks, and Thursday caused website servers to intermittently crash – but not before a reported 180,000 downloads on the first day. Echoes of Silence also caused a server crash. And he’s hit these heights with a unique new sound unlike anything else on the scene, often with disturbing music and lyrics.

The Weeknd has also done it with almost no public appearances, not a single media interview, and no record label of any kind. He’s played exactly four live performances: two in Toronto, and one each in Guelph, Ont., and London, Ont. Although he is part of the Toronto-based production / management / musical / business collective known as OVO XO – the home of Drake – his meteoric rise has really been fuelled by his music.

That, and a perfect storm of events. Following the release of House of Balloons, The Weeknd received a well-timed tweet by his OVO XO colleague Drake. Then he was name-checked by Jay-Z and Adele, and the mainstream started to take notice. The Weeknd landed on the coveted Polaris Prize shortlist for 2011 – a first for a free download. (Though he declined to perform at the Polaris gala.) He received raves fThis,” was used in HBO’s ad campaign for Entourage. He’s since done remixes by request for Florence and the Machine and Lady Gaga, and guest vocals on Drake’s Take Care. The Weeknd will play a prime slot at the prestigious indie music festival Coachella in April, his first official U.S. appearance, alongside the likes of Radiohead, The Black Keys and Dr. Dre.

The New York Times even dispatched a reporter to cover The Weeknd’s concert in Guelph last October. “He sang outrageously well, over woozy, narcotized rock by his stellar band,” Jon Caramanica raved in his review. “On record his voice can be otherworldly, but he delivered it here with force… ‘The Birds Part One’ and ‘The Birds Part Two’ were gut punches, the Weeknd at his most bruising.”

The acclaim is rooted in the singular quality of The Weeknd’s words and music. Darkly sensual and cinematic, The Weeknd’s sound is one of the most hypnotic you’ll hear these days. His plaintive falsetto perfectly complements the lush, spacey atmospherics of his songs, featuring moody synth washes, crisp beats and eclectic samples. His frail voice is the perfect vehicle for self-examining lyrics that hint at what a vulnerable young man he might be. He’s certainly capable of writing introspective, confessional and self-pitying songs.

But, as with hip-hop/R&B artists Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean, of the U.S.-based Odd Futures collective, his work can also be intense and unsettling. The imagery is often debauched, nihilistic, narcotic, and darkly sexual. In the song “Initiation,” he uses drink and drugs to coerce an unwilling woman into group sex. Then there’s the lyrics to “Outside”: “Make yourself at home / Because baby when I’m finished with you / You won’t want to go outside.”

His twitter tweets speak for themselves. “I tapped into the darkest and the most shaded part of my mind for your entertainment,” he tweeted last Nov. 4. A few days earlier, he sent this out: “By simply surrounding yourself with ugliness, darkness and evil can you really understand and appreciate real beauty.” And there’s also this: “But my lung’s so muddy, i love the way it tastes… drink it til i’m ugly baby fuck me when i’m faded.”

There’s a lyric on record that captures The Weeknd’s essence and the idea that he’s the sort of game-changing jolt that hip-hop and R&B need: “I’m going to give you what you feign / I’m the drug in your veins / Just fight through your pain / He’s what you want / I’m what you need.”
But how long he can continue to inhabit the persona he’s created remains to be seen.