From the Middle of the City to the Top of the World: Five Years of the Weeknd’s ‘House of Balloons’

The Weeknd is one of music's biggest stars thanks to a journey that began five years ago with the release of the incomparable House of Balloons.

Amidst meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the surprise SNL appearance anchoring the performance of one of music’s ascendant stars, and taking his mainstream erotica soundtrack to the Oscars, one recent event has stood out as indicative of the Weeknd’s incredible metamorphosis from blog darling to ubiquity: a change in real estate. In a February Los Angeles Times article, it was revealed that the Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, no longer made his residence in Toronto, but instead lived in an LA condo. Having not left Toronto for virtually all of his first 21 years, the city can lay claim to birthing one of the greatest trilogies in music, and moving away signifies that era has ended. Now, this certainly isn’t surprising given his status, but instead makes this retrospective all the more necessary, as five years ago today, the Weeknd released his debut mixtape, House of Balloons.

Before we talk about House of Balloons, we have to talk about The Noise. As Tesfaye himself explained on Twitter, the EP consisted of “demo’s [sic] written as a teen to get recognition”, and leaked after House of Balloons dropped. But they were crafted before the breakout mixtape, and play an integral role to understanding the desired ascent to global superstar he’s now known to have taken. On songs like opener “Birthday Suit”, PG-13 R&B as is radio vogue found him getting only as explicit as “in your birthday suit, take it all off”. Given the dedication to quality admitted in his reddit AMA — he claimed approximately seven versions of each song existed while searching for the right one — such simplistic jams were written with the express intent of making it big. On Beauty Behind the Madness, he brought The Noise‘s pop promise full circle with the chart-topping “Can’t Feel My Face”, but it’s telling that his longer Billboard #1 “The Hills” owes itself more to House of Balloons.

With the demos not having carved a pathway to widespread success, he instead settled for the former in Jay Z’s question “would you rather be underpaid or overrated?”, ostensibly seeing critical acclaim as an avenue for future commercial viability. By pairing deliberate debauchery with a hidden persona, each single release in 2010 sent blogs searching for the mysterious NC-17 auteur. Predating the phenomenon of the surprise album drop, the Weeknd instead made the surprise personality drop all his own. All the intentional obfuscating of a face to the name wouldn’t keep attention brought to the project if the product wasn’t worth coming back for, and damn, for a mixtape as much about the intoxication of substances and sex, he knew how to make it addictive.

Early single “The Morning”, for instance, sounded fantastic on its own, conjuring images of the zodiacal light notifying you of the sun’s impending appearance, and the memories of the night that kept you up to see it. On the mixtape, it plays that role perfectly, serving as the logical endpoint its predecessor, the cocaine-fueled two-parter “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls”. “The Morning’s” follow-up, “Wicked Games”, was his first radio hit, and within its lyrics contains one of the most overlooked aspects of the Weeknd’s appeal. When Pigeons & Planes talked to social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk about Kanye West’s tweets, he singled out West’s vulnerability on social media as an attractive feature to the public. When the Weeknd crooned “I need confidence in myself”, he humanized the experiences that he would later claim as “nothing to relate to”. It wasn’t just the hypnotic production and id-driven lyrics, the mythos started on House of Balloons and continued throughout Thursday and Echoes of Silence catalyzed numerous questions, namely, how much of this was nonfiction?

Authenticity is crucial to art, and with facts about Tesfaye kept to a minimum, the music was the only guide. With the lyrical content as explicit as it was, it was only a matter of time before he had to answer questions about it, like in his 2015 Rolling Stone interview; but this came after the global stardom, and before it, critics and fans were just wondering what would come next. Sampling critically beloved acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Beach House (twice!), and the Cocteau Twins on House of Balloons didn’t hurt his immediate credibility at all. This instead gave him an immediate foot in the door as a clear influence on one of the few artists who can currently claim greater fame: Drake.

Take Care, undeniably Drake’s magnum opus, is deeply indebted to the downtempo, airy aesthetic cultivated on House of Balloons. Besides working with the Weeknd on multiple tracks on the album, the best songs from the album’s sessions without direct Weeknd involvement, “Club Paradise” and “Marvins Room”, both exhibit the churning minimalism of House of Balloons tracks like “The Morning” and “Loft Music”. Though the two artists have diverged from their early-2010s sound, the stretch from House of Balloons to Take Care provided some of the decade’s iconic mood music.

Like all transcendent artists, Tesfaye is well aware of the impact his mixtape trilogy has made. Though he erred in claiming that “no one had [dropped three albums in a year before him]”, (lest we forget that Gucci Mane dropped his three-part Cold War series on one day in 2009) it’s hard to come up with three complete works of music released in that short span that are better. House of Balloons is the crown jewel of the three, setting the stage for world-conquering music to follow. By making undeniable music and releasing it for free, to say nothing of the effect of the unknown artist, he ensured that maximum ears could be exposed. The few interviews he’s given have touched upon his desire to become a star, but they didn’t get into the “How?” behind the “What?”. House of Balloons provided a simple, albeit difficult template for future artists: devote yourself to making timeless music, and you, too, can go from the middle of the city to the top of the world.

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