To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with three artists from the Great White North who defined and expanded the sound of popular music in 2015, setting it on the path it would follow for the rest of the decade.
In the history-making year of 1974, an incredible five separate Canadian artists topped the Billboard Hot 100. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” did it in March, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” followed in June, then Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby” duet with Odia Coates in August, Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” in September and Bachman-Turner Ovedrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” in November. It was a staggering run from our neighbors to the North on our charts — and for a good 40 years, it likely stood as the period of most pronounced influence and importance that Canada has had on American pop music.
That is, of course, until 2015. That was the year where three major Canadian artists, who had all already spent most of the decade as hitmakers of some magnitude, took their careers to the next level, and arguably emerged from the end of the 12-month period as the three single biggest male pop stars in all of North America — bigger than Terry Jacks or Andy Kim could have ever dreamed.
THE 2010S WERE THE DECADE THAT…
2010: Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011: Adele Revived the Music Industry | 2012: EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2013: Streaming Became Unignorable | 2014: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion | 2016: Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017: Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018: Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade
The 2015 ascent of Drake was in ways both the least and most dramatic of the three. The Toronto MC’s star had been steadily rising since a late-’00s mixtape run had crossed over to pop success at the decade’s end, with the No. 2-peaking love song “Best I Ever Had.” Boasting a singing-rapping hybrid style that had been increasingly normalized throughout the ’00s via hits by Nelly, T-Pain, Kanye West and his label head and hip-hop mentor Lil Wayne, Drake embraced writing about doubt, insecurity and fear in his relationships and his career like few stars before him. His aptitude with both crowd-pleasing club singles and relatable late-night confessionals — and his ability to often blend the two types on the same song — opened him to audiences of all kinds, and captured more fans with each release. He’d even become “global ambassador” for the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, largely because his international Q rating was so much higher than that of the local successful-but-starless team of the mid-’10s.
By 2015, Drake had eclipsed Wayne in popularity, and was essentially in a commercial class of one among contemporary rappers. In February, he released the for-sale mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, which featured no obvious radio single and consisted of his most paranoid, claustrophobic-sounding jams to date, but still sold nearly half a million copies in its first frame, also setting single-week records for streaming on Spotify. But what was setting up to be another year-long W in Drake’s half-decade long run of unqualified success was complicated and threatened that July, when Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, salty over Drake not tweeting an iTunes link to Meek’s new album Dreams Worth More Than Money, called his multi-time collaborator out on Twitter for relying on ghostwriters: “He don’t write his own raps!”
The claim was one taken very seriously by many hip-hop fans, for whom artistic credibility and generally walking it like they talked it was of paramount importance for their favorite rappers. As a former teen TV star, as a kid from a middle-class upbringing, and — yes — as a Canadian from a relatively affluent Toronto neighborhood, Drake had always been subject to skepticism over his overall realness, and comparisons to a hardscrabble MC like Meek certainly did him no favors in that department. The chatter about Drake grew louder with his extended social media silence following Meek’s claims — as fans waited for a response track that they presumed must be coming — and again after that eventual response track, the underwhelming, “Charged Up,” was released to tepid fan response. “I can tell he wrote that 1 tho,” Meek cackled on Twitter.
But before Meek had the chance to deliver the death blow in their beef, Drake returned with the much friskier “Back to Back,” and flipped the script on the bout entirely. All of a sudden Drake was the aggressor in the showdown, having released two tracks to Meek’s zero — and the timing worked out perfectly for the Toronto MC to perform “Back to Back” at his own hometown OVO Fest, in front of a screen blaring photos of tweets and memes at his foe’s expense. Drake had all but begun his victory lap by the time Meek actually released his own missive, “Wanna Know,” which felt too little too late.
And he didn’t stop there: By the end of July, Drake had also released the new single “Hotline Bling,” a shuffling and almost entirely sung barrage of non-stop hooks that — assisted by a catchy title, a skanking beat and a highly meme-able music video — quickly exploded into his biggest pop hit to date. Then, just to hedge his bets, Drake also teamed up with fellow hip-hop star Future for September’s collaborative album What a Time to Be Alive, a series of giddily self-indulgent strip-club bangers, which sounded like the duo throwing the best party ever for the sole purpose of not inviting Meek.
The year ended with Drake more popular than ever, the thriving embodiment of the maxim that the best revenge is living well. His success demonstrated just how much morays had changed in hip-hop culture, whose hierarchy was now determined more on the Internet than in the streets, and in which the terms for what qualified as artistic credibility were no longer a fixed quantity, but an ongoing negotiation. It also set him up to rule the remainder of the decade not just as the world’s biggest rapper, but arguably as its biggest pop star as well — a post-genre monocultural figure whose decade-long crescendo of success had essentially made him too big to fail. By the time he found himself embroiled in a similar feud with veteran rapper Pusha T three years later, the question was no longer if he would be able to bounce back and springboard to even greater success, but when, and how.
Justin Bieber had achieved similar success to Drake prior to 2015, but was just coming out of a rough patch that had lasted longer and looked scarier than any his Ontario compatriot had faced. After his 2010 breakthrough cemented him as the preeminent teen heartthrob of his generation, Bieber made most of the right moves for the next couple years, expanding his pop portfolio and gradually edging from G-rated material to more PG- and PG-13-pushing fare as he entered his late teens. But around 2013, a couple headlines about Bieber’s typical adolescent behavior grew into something resembling an outright downward spiral. Meanwhile, he also fell on hard times commercially, as his more revealing, more adult single series of R&B-flavored ballads and down-tempo bangers — collected in early 2014 as Journals — failed to produce anywhere near the commercial returns of his poppier early-decade hits.
There were legitimate questions to be asked about whether Bieber had reached the end of his pop idol days — as so many teen stars do when they reach young adulthood — when he appeared in early 2015 as a surprise guest on “Where Are Ü Now,” a track from marquee EDM producers Skrillex and Diplo’s new collaborative Jack Ü project. The song was a trappy piano ballad that exploded into a syncopated instrumental release, led by Bieber’s pitch-shifted, wordless cry. “Where” was very warmly received in both the pop and dance communities, and went on to hit the top 10 of the Hot 100 — Bieber’s biggest hit in years.
It would soon turn out to be just the beginning for Justin Bieber 2.0. In August, he released the breezy solo single “What Do You Mean?,” a dance-pop single bouncier and less urgent than Bieber’s Jack Ü collab. The song drew comparisons to the work of the increasingly popular Norwegian producer Kygo, and his home genre of tropical house — a lighter, airier version of the 4/4 thump of deep house, with dancehall and fusion accents — and immediately connected with listeners, debuting at No. 1 and giving Bieber his first career Hot 100-topper. That dancehall influence was even more pronounced on follow-up single “Sorry” — a moombahton-lite take-me-back plea with co-production from old buddy Skrillex — which ultimately followed “What Do You Mean?” to No. 1. All three hits were collected on Bieber’s blockbuster November LP Purpose, which confirmed that the former YouTube sensation was now an adult pop star, and arguably even more popular than he ever was as a teen idol.
As the decade’s second half unfolded, Bieber’s newly internationally flavored brand of electro-pop — increasingly referred to as “trop pop,” though many critics took umbrage at the term replacing (if not outright erasing) dancehall and reggae in the music’s heritage — became the norm on pop radio. Hitmakers like Sia and Clean Bandit, who had scored pulse-racing hits earlier in the decade, were now slowing things down to a gentler shuffle, while the biggest EDM DJs stopped trying to burn a hole in the dancefloor with their beats, and instead set their drops to “sway.” Bieber himself featured on such hits by a couple of them the next year — the lurching “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake (a No. 4 hit), and the Ed Sheeran-co-written “Cold Water,” by former collaborator Diplo’s Major Lazer project (No. 2) — establishing his Top 40 omnipresence even when he no longer had music of his own to promote.
The size and scope of Bieber’s comeback was certainly jaw-dropping, but the biggest surprise success story of 2015 undoubtedly belonged to one Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. The Toronto singer-songwriter had emerged under a cloud of mystery years earlier with his House of Balloons mixtape — an immedately attention-grabbing set of cutting-edge R&B jams that drew not only from hip-hop and EDM, but also took influence (and a whole lot of samples) from the indie rock world. His productions were smoky, ethereal and often stomach-churning, while his lyrics were druggy, decadent, and usually fairly malevolent. The mixtape electrified the Internet and made Tesfaye a sensation, before anyone even knew who he really was or what he looked like. But after The Weeknd was properly unveiled at Coachella in 2012, his early live shows proved underwhelming, while further mixtapes carried diminishing returns, and proper major label debut Kiss Land proved kind of a stiff. It seemed unlikely Tesfaye would ever rise above cult stardom.
That’s why news of The Weeknd working with pop super-producer Max Martin and looking to emulate Michael Jackson as a triple-threat was met in 2015 with only slightly less incredulity than if Bon Iver had announced he was joining a boy band. Even after he’d scored crossover hits doing dance-pop seduction tangos with Ariana Grande and melodramatic theme ballads for the Fifty Shades of Grey series the year before, it seemed insane that this peddler of R&B luridness, this near-vampiric figurehead of the seediest and most soul-sucking parts of urban nightlife, was essentially trying to pivot to full-on pop stardom.
But once the fruits of his rebranding were revealed, in the form of massive lead single “Can’t Feel My Face,” a lot of doubters had to eat their words pretty quickly. The song was a bubbling pop-funk floor-filler with a five-star pre-chorus and a stripped-down singalong refrain — the kind of single that felt like you’d known it for 20 years after you heard it once. This was no longer music for coke binges and breakup sex, it was music for weddings and bar mitzvahs. What’s more, the Weeknd who brought the songs to award shows (and a stop on Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour) wasn’t the hesitant, physically awkward presence form Coachella three years earlier, but a confident performer with some quasi-legit dance moves. The MJ comparisons were earned.
“Can’t Feel My Face” shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in August, lasting for three non-consecutive weeks and becoming one of the defining hits of the late summer. But what really made The Weeknd’s success story so notable is that the song that knocked “Face” off its perch atop the chart for good was also a Weeknd song: the breathtaking “The Hills.” Unlike its crowd-pleasing predecessor, “The Hills” made no attempt whatsoever to pander to radio or to the dance floor. Rather, it doubled down on the eerieness and brutality of his darker mixtape moments, with a song that played a late-night romantic hookup as a horror movie — down to the Bernard Herrmann-like synth stabs that opened the song and the chilling shriek samples that introduced its chorus. Not only did the song top the Hot 100, it lasted at No. 1 for six weeks, twice as long as “Face.” Clearly, people loved Weeknd-as-MJ, but they might’ve loved Weeknd-as-Weeknd even more.
The Weeknd was perhaps the decade’s greatest example of a self-made pop star, one who took complete control of his own narrative from the very beginning, and seemed to dictate the audience’s own response to his career twists and turns from there. Few artists of the 2010s were imitated as frequently or as transparently as Tesfaye — whether for his ghostly wailing, his pitch-black R&B production, his hedonistic lyrics, or later, as he pivoted to similarly successful collaborations with legendary electronic music duo Daft Punk, his frayed-nerve electro-pop. But even with his many followers, The Weeknd managed to remain a singular presence throughout the decade, a shining example of how the 2010 allowed its biggest artists to shape pop stardom in their own images more than maybe any other decade prior.
Together, the trio of Canadian stars helped pull North American pop music out of its mid-decade doldrums. With EDM’s edge softening and influence waning, and the SoundCloud rap boom’s full impact still a year or two away, the charts of the mid-’10s were littered with old-fashioned pop throwbacks: the Boomer bubblegum of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” the slick ’80s leaning of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” the ’90s frat-reggae of Magic!’s “Rude,” even the classic big soundtrack balladry of Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again.” Drake, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd gave Top 40 a badly needed glimpse of the future, pushing pop music into unexpected, exciting and genre-bending places, and ensuring the 2010s’ second half started off with a sonic identity distinct from its first half.
And the pop contributions from north of the border didn’t end with those three: 2015 alone saw breakout hits from rising stars Alessia Cara and Shawn Mendes, as well as rapturously acclaimed albums from cult favorites Grimes and a post-“Call Me Maybe” Carly Rae Jepsen. Most of those artists are still relevant today, with Shawn Mendes scoring his first No. 1 hit this August, and The Weeknd matching him at the chart’s apex this very week. And back in June, when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship — the first title won by a Canadian team in one of the four major North American sports leagues in over a quarter century — Drake was famously on hand to take credit for building the culture around the team’s title run, claiming on (much-memed) video, “We created this.” He wasn’t right, but he might not have been completely wrong, either.
Next, in 2016 — the evolution of the album format reaches a mid-decade peak through a succession of event releases.