Now that Universal has bestowed proper commodity value on the Weeknd’s much beloved neo-soul nihilism, it’s only appropriate to push the consumer report front and center: you’ve already heard 27 of the 30 songs on Trilogy. All three mixtapes compiled here — House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence — were released online for free download last year by the artist himself, Abel Tesfaye. “Twenty-Eight”, “Valerie”, and “Til Dawn (Here Comes the Sun)” are attached to the tail ends of each collection respectively, as bonus tracks, but even these have been circulating promotionally for over a month. So, really, you’ve probably already heard 30 of these 30 songs. They’re ostensibly remastered, yeah, but anyone who waxes eloquent on some kind of marked audible improvement is lying.
What’s the pitch? That depends. Universal is undoubtedly cornering the Top 40 market, or at least whosever blog-unsavvy ears the Weeknd managed to elude. Tesfaye, meanwhile, now gets the chance to reinforce his creative persona. The defeated libertine who smoked, snorted, seduced, and somnambulated through three diffuse comedown mixes now benefits from the narrative coherence of a formal compilation. At least, that’s how critics may mount a defense of this cash-in, as if anyone inclined to play all three back-to-back hasn’t already, and anyone who isn’t so inclined, would now be.
But suppose you’re new to the Weeknd. Suppose you’re Universal’s ideal consumer. Suppose Tesfaye’s sinuous, high-drama R&B hasn’t snaked its way into your after-hours waking life yet. Suppose you might just heed his call to get “High for This”. Is Trilogy worth three hours of your precious attention? Absolutely. Established fans, however, should expect more revisitation than renewal or revelation.
PopMatters’ Corey Beasley and Elias Leight have already provided proper rundowns of the first and last thirds of the trilogy. The middle, Thursday, happens to have been my introduction to the Weeknd’s depressive pleasures, and as middle thirds are wont to be, it’s the most anxious, inward, and inconclusive of the three. It also boasts Tesfaye’s finest achievement, opener “Lonely Star”, in which lush, multitracked, self-consciously empty promises are answered in the coda by their disembodied addressee’s quavering supplication: “Give them any other day but Thursday… I exist / Only on Thursday.”
The sampled interlocution of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Cocteau Twin’s Elisabeth Fraser (and Aaliyah, before her silky soprano — a Virgin property — was cut from the remaster) on House of Balloons is thus consolidated into someone more unilaterally human, a femme specter who hangs over the rest of Thursday — and, retrospectively, all of Trilogy — as the casualty of the protag’s desperate hedonism. She anchors Tesfaye’s pity party in a genuine sense of loss. The canniest move of Trilogy, then, is giving her a name on “Valerie”, Thursday’s bonus track. (Perhaps it is also her arms across Tesfaye’s chest in Trilogy‘s cover art?) In addition to allowing Thursday an overdue emotional payoff — and, with its Fairlight sonics and falsetto histrionics, transitioning nicely into the cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” that starts Echoes of Silence — the anguished ballad advances the Weeknd’s hazy narrative: falling in love has made Tesfaye a changed man.
If this makes Trilogy sound like a mire of despond, make no mistake, ideal consumer: this is makeout music of the highest order. Rarely surpassing 80 clicks and chiefly concerned with sex and, to a lesser extent, love, the Weeknd belongs fully to the “quiet storm” tradition of Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, and John Legend, but just happens to be, on average, much, much sadder. The key is its brooding sound. The bacchanalia and odes to virility so central to the masculine R&B idiom is here awash in the reverberant industrial chill (and occasional guitar) of ambient dub and trip-hop, and while the Weeknd’s relentless introspection is arguably no less self-indulgent than R. Kelly or Chris Brown, Tesfaye’s sullen lyrics can nevertheless be heard in this context as critiquing of the phallic crassness those R&B figureheads represent while performing a not entirely dissimilar musical function.
This subversive edge is catnip to critics, naturally, as are the indie staples plundered and repurposed by producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney. Both are defining traits of alternative R&B’s most salient current form, as typified by How to Dress Well, Miguel, and Frank Ocean (himself a recent Universal acquisition): R&B crooners hipsters are down with. Fellow Canadian Drake, who lends a verse to “The Zone”, as well as Kid Cudi and, of course, Kanye West, represent a similar formation in rap. Inevitably this subgenre of sorts, and the Weeknd in particular, have become the site of racial territorial claims (and snide formations like “PBR&B”), a pissing contest as tired as it is condescending. Do we really assume that black listeners are allergic to Siouxie and the Banshees samples in 2012?
The greater mystery of Tesfaye’s wide appeal, really, is what some have criticized as his one-dimensionality. The Weeknd’s emotional range starts at regret and ends at lament, and the new tracks on Trilogy don’t do much to change that. Indeed, they sequence so seamlessly into the larger body of his work that they complete it and close it off. If we are to consider this compilation as a single document, then it’s a document of this limited, albeit mesmerizing, facet of the Weeknd’s persona. Tesfaye’s task from here is to show us some of the others.