As of August 2015, the Weeknd is the hottest singer on the Billboard Hot 100, he's the most popular musician on Beats 1 Radio, and he's the top-selling singles artist in the iTunes Music Store. The Weeknd, an erstwhile prince of dungeon sex playlists, has now become a young king of R&B, and a king of pop at the same damn time.
In a recent New York Times profile of the insurgent Toronto superstar, even Quincy Jones is nodding along with the Weeknd's claim to the late Michael Jackson's throne. "I used to make music like that," Jones told Abel in Vegas, referring to "Can't Feel My Face," the Weeknd's biggest hit yet.
The success of the Weeknd's brilliant pop insurgency (in progress) is largely on the strength of "Can't Feel My Face," the fourth single from his forthcoming album, Beauty Behind the Madness. (You'll recall that Abel debuted the song onstage at an Apple press conference, of all possible venues.) It's the sort slick and sprightly jam that we haven't heard the likes of since MJ's latter-day, post-Quincy disco rehashes, or alternatively—as the critic Chris Molanphy notes—since the soaring bliss of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle." In any case, in 2015, the Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" is our song of the summer. For a while there, it seemed like no one could possibly dethrone Wiz Khalifa's "See You Again," a sparse and tender tribute to the late Paul Walker, from its dreary reign atop the Hot 100. Thankfully, the Weeknd was up to the challenge.
Such a mainstream ascendancy couldn't have happened to a weirder guy. As a pioneer of drugged, distorted, disenchanted R&B—"alternative R&B," some are calling it—the Weeknd once lurked at the margins of his own genre. He was an enigma by design. Now, in the contemporary male R&B category, he's unrivaled by the alpha crooners, the bubblegum Casanovas, and the "urban radio" darlings that we'd assumed, until now, were running R&B. Miguel, like the Weeknd, is illicit and kinky, but while the Weeknd was attaching himself to a truly huge Ariana Grande record and releasing the lead single for the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, Miguel was making "Coffee." Frank Ocean and Jeremih are languishing in the absence of new singles or definitive release dates, respectively. Trey Songz, a powerful singer, hasn't outdone himself since 2009, when he released the incomparable Ready. Chris Brown is massively divisive, as always.
Despite his discomfort with fame and the American pop machine, the Weeknd has stepped in to fill the power vacuum that's existed in male R&B since the decline of Usher (due to natural exhaustion) and the disfiguration of R. Kelly (due to his being a vicious sex criminal and all that). In the music video for "Can't Feel My Face," we see him stretching his legs as a dancer, for once, thus providing yet another hint that the Weeknd 2.0 is a robust and spectacular pop package, not just a kinky shtick. "The Hills," which is currently the Weeknd's second-most popular single (and just hair's length from entering the Top 10), is truer to the Weeknd's definitive mood: brooding and polluted. But now "The Hills" represents just one facet of the Weeknd's diversified appeal. He's come a long way from billing himself as some reclusive "villain shit," a.k.a., Victor von Croon, just two years ago.
With admirable but, ultimately, modest competition from Major Lazer's slithering dance hit, "Lean On," the Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" is the song of the summer—and the Weeknd is the man of the year, pretty much. He's even eclipsed his Toronto twin, Drake, in popularity on Apple Music's new Beats 1 Radio streaming service. His Beauty Behind the Madness is due out Aug. 28, at summer's dusk, just as we're closing the books on the year's most invigorated season. If his current batch of hits are any indication, the Weeknd will dominate autumn, too. And winter. And spring. And summer again.