This past weekend, on what would have been Michael Jackson's 57th birthday, the effects of his style and innovation were still being felt on the up-to-the-minute digital music charts. It wasn't his tunes that claimed the top spots, but rather new material from two young singers who, in their own ways, are trying to build on Jackson's pop blueprint.
The biggest splash, thanks in part to a weeks-long viral marketing campaign, came from the once troubled but now mellowed 21-year-old Canadian Justin Bieber. On Friday, he debuted "What Do You Mean?" the first single from his upcoming fourth album. In an approach similar to "Where Are U Now," another recent hit featuring Bieber, "What Do You Mean?" layers his airily soulful, slightly melancholic vocals over a plucky beat and bare-bones instrumentation.
The song has the aural effect of a clock ticking toward a relationship's inevitable turning point. With One Direction imploding and Justin Timberlake taking time off to raise a new kid, this song and the album to come could return Bieber to the top of the always shifting male-pop heap, and he's finally got some grown-up tunes to sustain him when he gets there.
Yet 2015's throne isn't a guarantee for Bieber. He'll have to battle another young Canadian who's dominated conversations on Twitter and in real life in the last few days. The 25-year-old forward-thinking R&B crooner the Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) released his anticipated third full-length LP, Beauty Behind the Madness, on Friday. The slow-jam depictions of substance abuse, promiscuity and co-dependence that brought Tesfaye to prominence are still a fixation for him on the new record, from the deceptive melodic tragedy driving current hit "Can't Feel My Face" to the vice-riddled emptiness of "Often" and "The Hills."
As well-produced (by such luminaries as pop magician Max Martin) as the aforementioned tracks are, I'm a lot more interested and impressed by the Weeknd's attempts on this album to reach a broader audience, to write lyrics that could be interpreted more loosely and appreciated by listeners of all ages and sensibilities.
Like Mike did when he teamed with Quincy Jones on Off the Wall and Thriller, Tesfaye applies an ever-nimble tenor to a variety of beats and moods on Beauty Behind the Madness. The new album opens with a boldly delivered orchestral pop anthem called "Real Life," which dares to move beyond of-the-moment thrills into serious introspection. Continuing the biographical theme but throwing a few of the old sex tropes back in for good measure, is a beautifully arranged track produced by Kanye West called "Tell Your Friends."
Tesfaye turns his attentions to a troubled lover for the undeniably '80s jam "In the Night" later in the collection, and he shrewdly invites the beloved modern chanteuse Lana del Rey into his realm on "Prisoner."
With those unexpected stylistic moves on the new record (also including the stunning closing ballad, "Angel"), the Weeknd succeeds in moving closer to arena-headlining solo pop domination.
Not that everything has to be a competition, but I hope for Bieber's and pop listeners' sakes that he's thinking just as big regarding the rest of his upcoming album. Anything that gets us all away from the increasingly empty party songs would be welcomed. These are complicated times.