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Game Changers 2014: Abel Tesfaye

An anonymous YouTube upload took Abel Tesfaye from struggling musician, to critically acclaimed, Drake-approved R&B recoding artist, The Weeknd.
Illustration: Sean McCabe

Abel Tesfaye made his dream a reality. In 2010, Canadian-born Tesfaye met with producer Jeremy Rose, about a music project he was working on called “The Weekend.” After Rose heard Tesfaye freestyle to his contemporary R&B instrumentals, he was sold and the two began recording together. That December, 20-year-old Tesfaye anonymously uploaded three of the songs he and Rose produced to YouTube, under the name “The Weeknd,” a nickname he’d obtained after dropping out of high school at 17, leaving home one weekend and never looking back. The songs got a lot of buzz around the Internet and even caught the attention of another well-known Canadian-based rapper, Drake. Before long, the songs were receiving coverage from Pitchfork Media and The New York Times. So what did Tesfaye, or The Weeknd do? Three months later, in March of 2011, he released his first mix tape, House of Balloons, on his website, free of charge. He followed that up with a second free mix tape release in August, and a final one in December to complete his collection knows as the Balloons Trilogy.

The artist’s fan base continued to grow as his music time and again received positive attention from critics. The Weeknd signed a joint venture in September 2012 with Republic Records and his own imprint label XO, and rereleased the Trilogy as a compilation album, which sold 86,000 copies in the first week. Needless to say it was certified double platinum by Music Canada. That same year, the musician released his debut studio album, Kiss Land, which debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200, selling 96,000 copies. From high school dropout to being compared to Michael Jackson but with more sexual menace, the “songbird of this generation”—as dubbed by MTV’s John Norris—has changed the music game as we know it.


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