The chart pop of the century’s first dozen years was like a roving strip bar and dance club inside a giant Escalade, fleeing 9/11 fear and financial-crisis loathing in one very long lost weekend. But when the comedown hits, you call on the Canadians, the stealth outsiders with a line in bummed-out ambivalence. Voila, here’s Drake and The Weeknd to counterbalance Jay Z and R. Kelly, the way that early-1970s Neil Young and Joni Mitchell cast rueful shade across the paisley-speckled sunshine of the previous decade. At least, that’s one reading. But there are as many meanings as you choose to draw from the fact that two Torontonians, Drake, 29 (real name: Aubrey Graham) and The Weeknd, 25 (Abel Tesfaye), were dominant and defining figures of 2015 in two distinctly American genres.
Officially, Drake did not even release an album this year, but he escalated his reigning status in hip-hop when his ”mixtapes” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and the collaborative What a Time to Be Alive (with Future) reached multiple charts. Social media revolved around his beef with Meek Mill, and then he produced the year’s most viral video with “Hotline Bling.” But “Bling” was blocked from becoming Drake’s first-ever solo No. 1 by his former wingman, The Weeknd. “The Hills” inherited the spot on lock from The Weeknd’s summertime smash, “Can’t Feel My Face,” catapulting him from arty specialty fare to Max Martin-produced superstar. Between them, The Weeknd and Drake netted 12 2016 Grammy nominations.
Coming from a country where “Sorry” is the de facto national slogan, they both also complicate hip-hop’s standard masculine aggression with maple-sugared passive-aggression: See Drake being booty-slammed by Nicki Minaj in the “Anaconda” video, or the way that his slut-shaming and controlling in “Hotline Bling” are undercut by a video that suggests his plea may be to a sex-line operator whom Drake doesn’t even know. He and The Weeknd boast of sexual potency but also late-night regrets. After Beyoncé and Taylor Swift made 2014 a highly womanhood-conscious year, much of 2015 belonged to two Canadian dudes — three, if you add the very “Sorry” Justin Bieber — who seemed almost eager to submit to historic correction. Emphasis on the almost.
For both artists, the medium always has been the message. (Marshall McLuhan? Canadian too.) Drake and The Weeknd are as much digital adepts as countrymen Bieber, the biggest star ever to spring from YouTube’s forehead, and Shawn Mendes, plucked straight from Vine. The Weeknd first surfaced online anonymously, with 2011’s House of Balloons, and he has carefully managed his slow transition from avatar to human form. Drake, meanwhile, for years has been not only hip-hop’s leading living meme but its most aggressive content scout. Like Google swallowing startups, the Drake brand seeks and assimilates newer innovators.
Finally, there is the postmodern-identity-renegade status specific to Drake and The Weeknd due to both hailing from Toronto, one of the world’s most diverse cities, where multiple groups of immigrants meet from all over the globe. Drake is both African-American and Jewish-Canadian, while The Weeknd’s family is Habesha, part of the Ethiopian-Eritrean diaspora. These categories unsettle the fixed black-white dichotomies that usually organize American music and culture. And that seems freshly urgent in 2015. Amid issues of mass migration — Who is welcome? Who should be turned away? — their music holds up ID cards stamped with question marks.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of Billboard.