The Life You Save May Be Your Own: The Rise of Toronto’s Nixxon

Redressing the issues of a troubled past, Toronto's Nixxon, a one-time musical associate of the Weeknd, cuts his own swath with the release of his new album -- a gothic-futurist exercise in R&B.

However much Nixxon may try to evade the hot-button topic, he’s going to be known as the Weeknd’s one-time closest affiliate, at least for the next little while. Growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, the Canadian began his earliest musical exploits alongside his buddy, Abel Tesfaye, better known by his moniker the Weeknd. High school friends who had bonded over their love of music, Nixxon and Tesfaye formed a hip-hop collective they called Bulleez and Nerdz, trading rhymes over minimalist, bare-boned grooves. After recording a number of demos and doing some onstage free-versing, the two youths would eventually part amicably, each going their separate ways.

Tesfaye’s rise to fame is now well-documented and has somewhat gone down in the annals of Canadian music history as a modern-day rags-to-riches story. In what could only be described as an all-too familiar tale of humble beginnings, Nixxon would watch quietly from the sidelines as his friend sky-rocketed to worldwide stardom.

“Growing up in Scarborough made me tough inside and out,” Nixxon reasons. “A lot of crazy things happened. I mean, it would have been nice to grow up around Venice. That’s more my style. I started battling in high school to get my name out. It was always my first move into getting people talking. Battle the best rapper. From there the energy I got from the people listening was addicting, so I had to expand into making music.”

In the years that have transpired, Nixxon (born Jesse Dempster) has had a sobering amount of time on his side to reconfigure the dramas of his past. A full-length album entitled 1990 (and recorded under the name JesseRay) dropped a few years back, giving audiences a taste of what the rapper/singer could achieve with the minimal aid of a sampler when it was powered by an arresting vision. Featuring a set of codeine-infused grooves swathed in the cloudy airs of purple synths, 1990 was a throb-heavy headfuck of forlorn tunes, a clear declaration of post-adolescent blues. At the time, the album was released as a result of a few partnerships Nixxon had built while holding down various jobs around Toronto city. It should have elevated him to a notable standing among his musical peers (it certainly received gushing plaudits from critics and listeners alike), but a dissolution with creative partners would eventually tie the album up in red tape. For some time the album resided in legal purgatory after being retracted from all online sources; its re-release is expected sometime in the near future.

As of late, Nixxon has been gearing up for his latest set of material, the self-written For No Good Reason (most of which he co-produced with Rekkzone). There have already been a few catered slips of what listeners can expect from the promising contender; a single, “Beast”, was unleashed a few months back and will make an appearance on the album (albeit in remixed form). Featuring a rippling blast of subharmonic bass, “Beast” illustrates a most frightening prospect of reclamation — one in which Nixxon promises to “go strong ‘til you’re weak in your knees.”

“’Beast’ was me coming out of a shell that I’ve been in for way too long,” the singer says. “My energy was so focused into coming out with another 1990 that I wasn’t living in the present moment. So I was confused with making these love songs; at the same time I was trying to make turn up songs and let loose. ‘Beast’ is me transforming into my purity again. It was produced by a group in Atlanta that I have recently started working with called Shadows.”

If you’ve followed the trajectory of Nixxon’s career thus far, way back to when he recorded 1990, you’ll notice the one constant that permeates the bulk of his catalogue: the oil-painted air of gloom. Arguably a notorious characteristic of Toronto-based R&B (success with the Weeknd and rising stars like Jazz Cartier and Roy Woods clearly indicate that there’s something in the waters of Ontario’s capital), Nixxon appropriates that dimension of sound from a more subjective space. “I feel like Toronto is on a wave right now. We are like Chicago’s sister city, so we watch other major cities around the world and try to do what they have done, but better,” he says of his city’s musical climate. “I feel like since major artists are now making it out of Canada, any type of buzz messes with an artist’s head. I try to keep a Jimmy Hendrix mentality when it comes to people complimenting my music. It’s important ego doesn’t block your vision.”

Toronto’s perceived image as a hotspot of moribund romances and despondent living probably isn’t as pronounced in real life as it is in the work of some of the city’s most impressionable R&B stars, but there is certainly a romanticized view of this sentiment to be found among these up-and-comers. Looking over a number of the promotional video clips produced so far for Nixxon, one gets an overall sense of that seductive distortion. His music videos are filled with incredibly dark images — ones that look like scenes out of a murder-mystery film, turning an innocuous Toronto into something far more grim and menacing. A lot of the times in his videos, the singer’s face is obscured by shadows or veiled by a mask. Two of his most recent videos, “Beast” and “No Way”, evince a certain metropolitan dread; there is the slow smoke of hysteria pouring in from some perpetrating evil just outside the frame. “To be honest, those are the only two videos I have ever done without a strategy,” Nixxon admits. “The songs ‘No Way’ and ‘Beast’ were not written. I freestyled both records and my co-producer Rekkzone chopped them up. So I wanted to do the same with my videos.”

If the few singles he’s been releasing as of late are any indication, then For No Good Reason should expand upon the designs of his earlier work. Much of the artist’s music consists of extreme dichotomies in which the lighter elements (airy, atmospheric keyboard synths) are offset by the weightier rudiments of sound — booming basslines that ring like heavy thunder. It’s a central quality to Nixxon’s work, one that, in some respects, singles him out from the plethora of Canadian-based R&B artists currently making a run at a career. The singer’s seek-and-destroy approach of administering a palliative dose of love with the explosion of rage works a hit-and-run stratagem: lure listeners in with an inviting croon — then low-blow a crippling jab to the gut. It’s this uncanny mix of his bluesy, mechanical burn and a rough-housing hip-hop attitudinizing that places him squarely in an odd musical twilight zone.

Nixxon’s early beginnings in hip-hop, in fact, did not entirely secede with his shift toward R&B; rather it would provide his murky, late-night grooves a preliminary structure from which his glitched electro-soul reverberates. Meanwhile, his demonically-pitched vocals (a bittersweet smoke, like the rub of burnt sugar) placate the intense rumbles of beats and bass like nerve-numbing toxin. “It’s just a mix of who I am,” Nixxon explains of his synthesis of styles. “I can lash out when I want to. A lot of people don’t know that I can rap my ass off. But I enjoy singing too. The melodies hit me much more than rapping. Rapping to me is easy, so I always try to challenge myself. Whatever you hear me do is me at my purest form… I think what differentiates me [from other artists] is being an introvert. I’m an observer, so I collect information and filter out what I say into the mic. You can tell by the topics I speak about that it’s a lot different from other artists around the world. That’s why I find that writing puts you into a false sense of character… closing my eyes and saying what is on my mind is a lot more pure to me.

“I just feel when I sing I use more emotion and it’s more pure. I always hated writing. The idea of sitting down with a note pad and thinking of words to say defeats the idea of music to me. Melody always comes natural. That’s why even rappers today that don’t say much are not writing. Don’t get me wrong — I write sometimes. Just not recently.”

Nixxon’s tales of hard living, strange romances and foreboding sexual activity are pulled from a genuine point of reference and redirected into living, breathing songs. This isn’t the work of a megastar living in some unreachable stratosphere; it’s the hard toils of a discerning homebody, honing a method in which he can say whatever he wants however he wants. “I’ve progressed as a human being, period,” maintains the singer. “So as I change, the music does too. I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. When people ask me who do I listen to, or prefer, they are shocked to learn how often I don’t listen to other music. I am way too busy with my own. For No Good Reason was a pure unwritten album; 1990 was a heartbreak tape I made for myself after dealing with a break up. So I am in a total different spot now. For No Good Reason‘s cover was even sketched and painted. So from the ground up, this project is really pure.

“With For No Good Reason being my forthcoming album, it was difficult to scan through a library of work to see what would fit and what wouldn’t. The hardest part of creating is time. Time can confuse you or it can be on your side. With my album there would be times my team and I would jump up and down out of excitement… just to hear the song a few weeks later and not be satisfied at all. I am a perfectionist, so I always want the best end result.”

After a series of stops and starts along the way, Nixxon has seemingly settled into a steady rhythm of efficiency, diligently writing and recording as his career unfolds. The gothic futurism of his R&B seems poised to corner, at the very least, some of the more hotly-tipped corners of Toronto, if not the world outside of it. High profile news sources like the Toronto Star have already caught on to the rising hopeful.

In the past, the singer has been candid about his struggles in these last few years, laying bare the strife and hardships of living through financial and creative blocks (matters he’s discussed on 1990). Nixxon has already settled on an album title for his newest effort. But once you get to thinking about it, there’s a remarkable wealth of suggestions that could easily sum up the last few years of this young man’s life, providing a most pertinent title; Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” comes to mind. It’s certainly a most suitable adage — one that reflects a resourceful talent for devising impressive escapes from moments of danger.

Then again, Nixxon’s standing title is ironically fitting: For No Good Reason? You could say there’s plenty good reason enough.