By now, you’ve heard the line on the Weeknd, the alias of mysterious Toronto neo-R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye, whose free mixtape, House of Balloons, has everyone from Pitchfork to VIBE gasping for breath. Much of the discussion has centered around where to place the Weeknd in the larger conversation about contemporary R&B. House of Balloons deals in the typical tropes of the genre (sex, drugs, and druggy sex), but lifts samples from the indie world (Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees). Tesfaye brags about his swag and sexual prowess, but his producers (Doc McKinney and Illangelo) cloak his self-aggrandizement in beats that make his stories sound decidedly dark and unenviable. In other words, there’s some meta-gloss to the Weeknd, a Courvoisier-soaked tongue in cheek, a desire to subvert expectations. That self-knowingness has led to a debate in blog world over how race fits into the equation. Is House of Balloons, as one writer so charmingly put it, a purveyor of a new genre, PBR&B — soul music made by-and-for (implicitly white) hipsters? Or is that claim just a nasty bit of race-baiting, an assumption that black musicians somehow lose credibility if their fan-base begins with a predominately white crowd?
To begin to answer these questions, I’d point you — surprise — back the music. The context of the Weeknd is fascinating, but it wouldn’t matter if the songs weren’t completely outstanding. They are. But the questions swirling around in the digital air belie the nature of the production and hooks here. House of Balloons is a record comprised of slow-burning bangers, expertly crafted and dripping with a refreshingly ugly prettiness, but it doesn’t contain much in the vein of the experimental. That’s not a knock. The Weeknd, whomever its ever-widening audience may or may not be, beats the typical Clear Channel trash at its own game, not in some parallel indie-sphere. Maybe Chris Brown will hear this record and somehow take it upon himself to sink to the bottom of the ocean.
So, about those songs. The early consensus favorite is “House of Balloons”, which surgically removes the hook and chorus from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1981 gem “Happy House” and drops it into a but-once-a-year summer jam, one of the only uptempo moments on this record and the one in which Tesfaye and his team push the levels to the red. Windows down, volume up, repeat. The best part of the track, though, comes when it ends at 3:30, thrillingly transitioning “Glass Table Girls”, a Weekend manifesto. Has an 808 ever sounded so good, so deep? “Glass Table Girls” takes the “fun, fun, fun, fun” (apologies to Rebecca Black) of “House of Balloons”‘s party and reveals the coke-addled, sinister heart at its core. This move is the one that has some people up in arms about what to do with this record. Here, the Weeknd thumbs its nose at mainstream R&B’s hollow hedonism while simultaneously creating a flawless soundtrack to a blackout house party. What you should do with the track, ultimately, is press play.
“Wicked Games” out-pouts Chris Isaak, blending hilariously bottom-of-the-barrel hip-hop lyrics (“Let me see that ass / Look at all this cash”) and a hook R. Kelly would kill for (“And that’s my muhr-fuckin’ words, too / Just let me muhr-fuckin’ love you”) with Tesfaye emoting all over reverbed-out keys and drums, unabashedly admitting his addictions and almost frightening desperation for connection. “The Party & the After Party” (a nod in Kells’s direction) uses Beach House’s “Master of None” in the service of a seven-and-a-half-minute come-on that starts with Victoria Legrand’s vocals pitch-shifted to elf mode and ends with an impassioned staccato freak-out that would make Sam Cooke proud. “Loft Music” lifts from Beach House’s “Gila” to similar effect, Tesfaye injecting enough darkness into his courtship rituals (“What you doing in the bathroom? / I hear noises in the bathroom…”) to keep things interesting. When he assures his partner in opener “High for This” that she will, in fact, “want to be high for this”, you scoot a few inches away from him but give him your ear all the same.
Any record would be lucky to have even one of these songs, but for my money, “The Morning” singles itself out as House of Balloon’s peak. Tesfaye’s falsetto quivers in just the right places, McKinney and Illangelo letting his vocals breathe over stuttering beats and speaker-blowing bass. Tesfaye’s on top of his lyrical game — is there a better couplet to be found in the annals of 2011 than “From the morning ’til the evening, complaints from the tenants / Got the walls kicking like they six months pregnant”? His producers pull out all the stops, too, letting the beat build for a full minute-and-a-half before dropping it in purely rapturous, dopamine-soaked glory. It’s this year’s the-drums-finally-kicking-in-on-“Dance-Yrself-Clean”. If there’s any justice in the world, that chorus will be blasting out of car stereos all summer long, whether it’s from iPod aux hookups or Clear Channel dials. (Try to find the best moment in the track. Those doubled vocal harmonies from 2:28-2:33! Stick a fork in me.)
When it decided to give House of Balloons away for free, the Weeknd couldn’t have possibly known how successful the mixtape would be — and how quickly it would reach maximum velocity. But maybe it should’ve known. If Tesfaye is actually as confident as his persona’s better moments on record, he would have predicted all of this, the hype, the controversy, the love. Remember, this is a debut compilation. The Weeknd was invisible a few months ago. Try to imagine what these artists are working on now that they’ve gotten our attention.