For more than a year, Toronto singer and Drake affiliate Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, was the hottest unsigned R&B artist since Frank Ocean. The three mixtapes he released for free through his website in 2011 ("House of Balloons," "Thursday," "Echoes of Silence"), sparked a media frenzy ("House of Balloons" was nominated for Canada's Polaris Music Prize) and led to him selling out his first U.S. tour last spring in less than five minutes.
But since signing with Republic in September in a joint venture with his own XO imprint, the Weeknd is attempting the transition from indie favorite to mainstream star with Trilogy, a rerelease of his mixtapes that includes three bonus songs and arrives Nov. 13. Though the three-disc album will top out at 30 tracks, it'll be priced like a single CD, with a suggested price of $14.99 for the CD and $9.99 on iTunes.
The tactic of repackaging free online projects for commercial release is increasingly common in hip-hop (Drake sold 675,000 copies of his repackaged breakout mixtape, "So Far Gone," according to Nielsen SoundScan), but it's tricky to pull off for artists who build their songs around samples. Ocean scuttled plans to rerelease his "Nostalgia/Ultra" mixtape through Island Def Jam earlier this year after failing to clear key samples (and dodging lawsuits) from acts like the Eagles. (Ocean's major-label debut, "Channel Orange," contained all new material and bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in July.) But the press-shy Weeknd tells Billboard that although the Trilogy samples were "killing me," he was able to get clearance from acts like Beach House ("The Party & the After Party") and Siouxsie and the Banshees ("Glass Table Girls"). Only his use of Aaliyah's "Rock the Boat" on fan favorite "What You Need" failed to make the CD.
But if convincing core fans to spend $10-$15 on albums they already own is one challenge, getting them to shell out even more on the touring circuit is not. In October 2011, William Morris Endeavor music head Marc Geiger famously told Topspin CEO Ian Rogers that the Weeknd was able to command $25,000 for a show-even though he'd yet to play a single proper gig. Joel Zimmerman, music agent and head of William Morris Electronic, clarified to Billboard that the figure was used more as an example of the quotes mentioned in the bidding war to sign the Weeknd and his management-a deal that remained in process through January 2012.
"I had just booked Coachella for his first U.S. show, and I didn't know if we were hired. I still thought this could be a one-off thing," Zimmerman says. "Right before they came out to L.A., I flew to Toronto to meet everybody and get a handle on who they were and how we could work together. It's been one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had."
The Weeknd's initial U.S. shows, with a limited band and set production, grossed an impressive $335,000 across five dates with attendance of 8,352, according to Billboard Boxscore. For a fall tour that began in September and ran through last week, the Weeknd returned with a new band, backup singers and a full production complete with custom videos.
His appeal has also been evident on the charts. "Crew Love," a collaboration with Drake from the latter's 2011 chart-topper Take Care, went top 10 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in June, while Wiz Khalifa duet "Remember You" is No. 36, just behind Trilogy lead single "Wicked Games," which is No. 27. Zimmerman notes that the Weeknd has already begun recording new material, and that major touring plans will bring him to Europe in the spring, the festival circuit in the summer and even bigger U.S. venues next fall. The artist may even become more accessible in due time.
"At some point, he'll start doing press," Zimmerman says, "but right now it's been more about the music and the performance and just evolving as an artist.