download the album guilt free from the artist here: http://the-weeknd.com/
Less than two months ago, few of us had ever heard of the Weeknd. Then, as soon as the creepy R&B tracks from this free mixtape began to circulate, the hype engine revved up. There was the Drake cosign, the album art that looked like Spiritualized crossed with Tumblr art-porn, the missing vowel, the stylish samples, and the project's creators hiding in the shadows. You can't buy buzz like this, and the Weeknd's quick rise to Internet fame, both in indie circles and in parts of the mainstream, raised fascinating questions about the blurrier-than-ever lines between those two audiences and the underground's newfound embrace of R&B. (see also: Frank Ocean, Tri Angle Records, How to Dress Well.)
These are very interesting topics that have already spawned some good thinkpieces around the web, but set all that aside for a moment and you're still left with an album, same as always. And this album happens to be very good. The work of Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye and producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo (Drake producer Noah "40" Shebib, is not, as has been reported, involved in the project), House of Balloons is a remarkably confident, often troubling debut that excels at both forward-thinking genre-smearing and good old-fashioned songcraft. Take for starters the track "What You Need": with Burial-style vocal samples, techno scrape, and a sticky pop chorus, it's far from your average R&B number.
Of course, the Weeknd are not without forebears-- producers from Rodney Jerkins to Static Major and recently The-Dream have been pushing the sonic boundaries of R&B for some time now. Where the Weeknd differ, though, is that their source material pulls from the leftfield (the title track re-purposes Siouxsie and the Banshee's "Happy House", two songs here ride mutated Beach House samples), and their approach is more about building vibe and atmosphere. They're great at rich, woozy compositions that send Tesfaye's aching falsetto through the mix. An example is "The Morning", which feels at first like a spacey synth instrumental before a stuttering digital drumbeat announces this massive, swaying chorus that enters your brain and refuses to leave.
The group's penchant for druggy atmospherics is mirrored in their lyrical content, which is overtly sexual, narcotics-focused, and occasionally downright frightening. Debauchery is obviously nothing new in R&B, but this takes it a step further-- the drugs are harder, the come-ons feel predatory and lecherous, and the general feeling is self-hating rather than celebratory. On opener "High for This", Tesfaye handholds a partner through some strange sex act, singing, "Trust me, girl, you wanna be high for this." "Glass Table Girls" is pretty clearly about doing coke. Because we don't know these guys, it's hard to say whether these are real-life tales or imaginative storytelling-- you want to think the latter, but ultimately the anonymity makes it seem more disturbing.
What makes this whole thing work in an album context is that all the thematic and sonic pieces fit together-- these weird, morning-after tales of lust, hurt, and over-indulgence ("Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain," goes one refrain) are matched by this incredibly lush, downcast music. It's hard to think of a record since probably the xx's debut (definitely a touchstone here) that so fully embodies such a specific nocturnal quality. And even though the image of nightlife painted by the Weeknd isn't a place you'd ever want to live, it's one that's frankly very hard to stop listening to.
Joe Colly, March 29, 2011, pitchfork
In an article last week for the Village Voice, music critic Sean Fennessey wrote that ``two days ago, R&B changed again,'' referring to House of Balloons, the just-released mixtape by Toronto's The Weeknd, House.
He's right, but mostly in the sense that R&B, just like every music genre, changes with every new artist that emerges and every new song that is recorded. Of course R&B changed again when House of Balloons was released for free on the Internet; the real novelty would be if it didn't.
But The Weeknd, which is the project of 20-year-old singer/songwriter Abel Tesfaye, is more of a logical next-step progression for modern R&B than a radical reinvention of the genre - something that is almost impossible these days when genres have infiltrated each other so fully that when looked at from just the right angle, they all look kind of the same. So what does the music of the Weekend sound like?
A lot like fellow Toronto native Drake, it turns out. The recent Juno host is the most obvious precursor to The Weeknd - any of the nine songs on House of Balloons could slot in right next to one of the R&B tracks on Thank Me Later, Drake's debut from last year, and few would raise an eyebrow. Tesfaye shares the same penchant for hazy and vast expanses of space in which his voice floats in and out of focus, like a camera lens struggling to adjust to a quickly- moving target.
But where Drake's production leans slightly more toward the hip-hop end of the spectrum - a tangible lower-end, percussion that hews to the tinny snap of southern rap, the ability to be rapped as well as sung over - the sound of The Weekend is busier and skewed more to the ambient electronic side of things. High for This begins with synth washes that emerge out of the corners of the track, its programmed drums brittle and icy, sounding like they would snap if you got too close to them. What You Need approaches dubstep with its slightly- off tempo and its use of samples that draws the pain out of old R&B vocals.
The production gives House of Balloons a sinister feeling, and the songs themselves only further this sense of alienation. Tesfaye trades in standard R&B fare, but with a twist: for instance, when he sings of desiring a certain girl, the caveat is that he only desires her when he's coming down from a drug- induced high. The seedier side of drug use is a running theme through the mixtape; on Loft Music, Tesfaye admits the only girls he seems to end up with ``have 20 different pills in them.'' Otherwise it's the same kind of make-money, get-girls kind of thing that Trey Songz, Jeremiah, and The-Dream do very well; in fact, Tesfaye's voice recalls a more versatile version of The-Dream's, with more range and ability to convey subtle emotions.
House of Balloons is surprisingly fully formed for a debut: The Morning is a stunningly moody track with a chorus sized to match, while closer The Knowing simmers sensuously. But it's definitely still a debut. While the sonic side of the project give The Weeknd a new-but-familiar feel, Tesfaye is still fine- tuning his songwriting abilities. Not all of the hooks stick as much as the others do, and certain tracks float by aimlessly, covering the same sort of territory as others do but with less of an impact.
But Tesfaye is just barely an adult, and listening to House of Balloons one gets the feeling he's going to be around for a long, long time.