What lessons did Drake and OVO learn from The Weeknd saga, and how are they implementing them this time around with PartyNextDoor?
Late on Tuesday night PartyNextDoor, the Mississauga R&B artist best known as the guy on Drake’s label who sounds kind of like The Weeknd, decided to release four songs on Drake’s personal blogspot while announcing his plans for a world tour in 2015. The songs were all paired with cover art that looked like it could belong on the palette stick that an interior designer would use when trying to find the perfect accompanying shade, and were apparently part of an EP titled PNDCOLOURS. In addition to helping continue the quest of bringing the Queen’s English to the forefront of hip-hop, these songs helped Jahron Brathwaite dig himself deeper into a niche of R&B that has turned towards rap as inspiration for content. But besides a European tour and a penchant for Cash Out verses, what do we really know about Brathwaite a year and a half after we heard his first offering as PartyNextDoor?
Nothing. We know nothing. Since he’s yet to speak to any media outlet and has managed to avoid TMZ cameras systematically—which is impressive considering he’s worked with one of the Jenner sisters—there are very few facts surrounding his mythology. There may have been a stint in Miami where he wrote songs for people like Ty$, but there are no songwriting credits anywhere to support that. Still, considering how little we know about Brathwaite, he’s managed to stay on the edges of relevancy since releasing his first official EP, PartyNextDoor One, in July of 2013. His commercial release, PartyNextDoor Two may have only sold 15,924 copies in its opening week when it came out at the end of July 2014 (for comparison, Tinashe sold 19,000 copies in her first week) despite having a Drake feature and a radio single in “Recognize,” but it has done enough to establish him as a reliable touring artist—this global tour comes on the heels of a sold-out North American tour.
This plan of releasing songs, touring, and not doing much else is ambitious in a music landscape that seems to demand artists always stay in the spotlight, but it’s also working. There’s very little money to be made in the music industry in 2014 outside of touring, selling your talents as a featured artist, and having your music licensed for car commercials. The team over at October’s Very Own know this, and they’re priming Brathwaite to be a valuable part of their label by adopting a perfected version of a blueprint that has failed them before with The Weeknd and the XO collective.
For those unfamiliar, a quick history: The Weeknd and XO were a group of young adults in Toronto who made music, along with hosting after-parties where drugs and girls were aplenty. They rose to fame after Drake attached himself to their movement, like a remora to a shark. With that connection, The Weeknd appeared out of nowhere on the OVO blog in 2011 with the instantly successful House of Balloons. Though the details surrounding who the original architect behind The Weeknd’s first batch of leaked songs was, Abel Tesfaye still managed to release three albums worth of music with what would eventually become The Trilogy after getting his spot on the OVO blog. After promoting Tesfaye’s music publically, Drake enlisted his services for two songs on 2011’s Take Care. Though it was rumoured that Tesfaye would sign with Drake’s fledgling OVO label, The Weeknd chose instead to pursue his own ventures under Universal Republic—the same parent company that owns Young Money and Cash Money—instead of Warner, which owns Drake’s OVO Sound label.
Basically, OVO let The Weeknd slip through their fingers. Drake prematurely assumed that he would retain The Weeknd’s services, leading to lines like “that OVO and that XO is everything you believe in” being included on Take Care. When the contracts landed in the end, though, OVO had missed out on their opportunity to groom an R&B foil for Drake. The two could have worked together on the same label to dominate radio for years, like some sort of Batman and Robin that dealt not in saving lives but in helping soundtrack the application of makeup for young women everywhere. Alas, egos and unidentified disagreements got in the way, and it wasn’t meant to be.
This time around, Drake is playing it close to the chest with PartyNextDoor, signing him to the OVO Sound label before promoting Brathwaite’s songs or using his image in “the 6ix” merchandise promo shoots. This may seem like an easy lesson to learn, but sometimes it’s easy to let your own influence blind you. But OVO hasn’t just learned from failures, they’ve also seen what works based on the XO saga. While PartyNextDoor may avoid interviews, there’s no guesswork regarding what he looks like. He’s also regularly active on Twitter, putting him in the murky gray area between being familiar and mysterious. There’s also the instance of Drake grouping The Weeknd and PartyNextDoor as the “sound” he introduced the world to on the “Tuesday” remix, which while not despicable, is a power play designed to establish Drake’s image as a tastemaker while balancing the playing field for his newest signee.
They’ve doubled down on the mystery, swearing off all interviews and public statements by Brathwaite for the foreseeable future. They’re also pacing themselves with the releases, forgoing the salvo of full-length mixtapes in a calendar year in lieu of a steady roll-out of projects. An EP in the first year, an album the year after, and another EP almost a year after that. Save for a Nipsey Hussle and a Rochelle Jordan collab, there have been no real features to speak of, and before PNDCOLOURS, there wasn’t a single rapper to feature on the songs except Drake. Even the additions of Cash Out and Travis Scott continue to feed PartyNextDoor’s image of being in tune with popular rappers, both of this and yesteryear.
It’s an ambitious plan for success in the R&B realm, but it’s working. The songs contained on PNDCOLOURS aren’t great, but they build on the underdeveloped aesthetic that PartyNextDoor is going for, where his R&B songs are influenced by popular rap music—essentially flipping the classic formula of rap music sampling the breaks of soul singers on its head. The inspiration PartyNextDoor finds in rap is clear in the 70bpm trap snares on “Her Way,” or the way he employs air horns and double-time cadences on songs like “FWU.” Unlike The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor channels not just the rap world’s songwriting approaches but also a hip-hop-oriented delivery, causing him to sound almost like a melodic rapper from “weird new Atlanta.”
You wouldn’t be wrong to assume that PartyNextDoor will never be as popular as The Weeknd, who is currently performing duets with Ariana Grande and selling out arena tours while promoting a clothing line. But Abel Tesfaye was born in 1990, while Jahron Branwaite was born in 1993. The Weeknd rose to prominence as a result of singing about things that most singers other than R.Kelly would deem too raunchy to touch. PartyNextDoor carries on this trend of singing about the darker aspects of life, but aims his focus on the violent and romantic life of gang parties instead of after parties, putting the narrative on the drug dealer instead of the drug taker. There’s certainly enough room for both of them to exist, but it will be interesting to treat PartyNextDoor’s career as a case study for what would’ve happened to The Weeknd had Tesfaye remained under the fuzzy owl wing.
Slava Pastuk is the editor of Noisey Canada. Follow Slava on Twitter.