R&B music has always been about those things that happen when the lights go out, and by things, I don’t mean bedtime stories. From early pioneers Bo Diddley and Sam Cooke, to golden age giants Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, to modern disciples D’Angelo, R. Kelly, and Usher, artists for sixty years have been channeling their libidos into hypnotic, insistent rhythms and building sensuous, hip-swiveling beats to guide our basest desires. But with the exception of a few filthy Prince lyrics, the genre has always been firmly rooted in the romantic. The come-ons are sensual yet playful, double-entendres the modus operandi. There’s sexuality but even when it’s overt, it’s respectful; no need to be crass, everyone’s going to get some, now be cool. But enigmatic Toronto-based artist the Weeknd is a new beast entirely — an R&B act that is not in the business of charm or seduction. The ladies’ participation is taken for granted. There’s an icy, cynical self-assuredness that not only will you be coming home with them, but by the end of the night you’ll be high as hell and getting fucked in the bathroom. Needless to say, this is not your parents’ R&B. It’s mesmerizing, addictive, and very, very cold.
Part of the appeal comes from the artist’s impenetrable back story. It began in late 2010 when someone or something called The Weeknd uploaded a handful of dense, darkly futuristic R&B songs to YouTube. Then in March 2011, fellow Toronto rapper Drake gave props to the project — a group? a man? a thing? — with a now-legendary Twitter cosign. Days later, a mysterious black & white album cover appeared on blogs like a bad outtake from a Dov Charney bathroom photoshoot, and a free mixtape called House of Balloons was suddenly available for download if you knew where to look. Sparked by an intense social media buzz, the Weeknd had risen from complete obscurity to considerable critical acclaim in indie, rap, and underground R&B circles in less than a few months.
The rest is mostly a mystery, save a couple of facts: unknown 20-year-old Toronto native Abel Tesfaye is credited as the Weeknd’s vocalist, while hip-hop producers Martin “Doc” McKinney and Illangelo are responsible for the album’s mixing and arrangements. Tesfaye is a competent if not extraordinary R&B singer; his range is respectable, though not even heavy auto-tuning and pitch processing can mask his slight nasally tone (an apropos characteristic considering the amount of blow he professes to doing). Tesfaye is truly memorable for the way even his most impassioned vocals are are infused with a hyper-focused aloofness, emphasizing the detached, hollow quality of the record. McKinney and Illangelo expertly craft a cavernous synthesizer and drum machine bubble around Tesfaye’s accounts of glass table coke lines and bathroom stall encounters, enhancing the album’s already lurid, druggy 4 a.m. vibe. Indeed, atmosphere is where House of Balloons truly slays. When I recently played a couple of tracks for a friend, he was taken aback, clearly expecting the sort of club banger that Big Boi or Lil’ Wayne might crank out. “This sounds like that music slowed way down, the kind of stuff you get high to.” Exactly.
From the very first track, House of Balloons runs rampant with sex, booze and drugs. And not in the sloppy, mythologized Keith Richards sort of way, but in a more calculated, sinister fashion. “You don’t know what’s in store…lay yourself beside me” Tesfaye breathes as reverb-saturated keyboards flank his sly, echoey tenor. The production is eerily smooth and the voice sultry, but it’s soon upheaved by a tilting floor of bass that bleeds out over the song’s ominous chorus. “Trust me girl/ You wanna be high for this” Tesfaye says, as if it’s the only way his lady could tolerate the lewd act that he’s about to perform on her. It’s downright creepy, but what’s even more shocking is how the record’s glossy production and Tesfaye’s provocative delivery make it actually feel erotic. Songs “The Party & The After Party” and “Loft Music” are anchored in debauchery (“The only girls we fuck with/Seem to have twenty different pills in ’em” and “You always come to the party/On your knees”) but are propped up on woozy, narcotic samples from indie pop duo Beach House, bringing a sort of ethereal sensuality to the dark subject matter.
Sonically, the album is magnificent — guitars rev like purring engines, synthesizers hang over the mix like crystal chandeliers, and everything is laced with monstrous echo. Fat, vibrating bass notes surface occasionally but are seldom the focal point — an anomaly for an R&B record. As a result, the album has a floating, oddly vacant quality that invokes a vast emotional emptiness. There’s a so-cheesy-it’s-dope 80’s drum machine breakdown in “The Morning,” later trumped by live snares that crack like gunshots in the “The Party & The After Party.” Slow burner “What You Need” is the closest thing to a single on House of Balloons, and that’s due as much to its lush ambience as the chorus’ catchy hook. Over a humid wash of synths and ghostly, minor-key chimes, a voice moans “He’s what you want/ I’m what you need.” It’s a love song, but not without some pretty lascivious undertones.
The first half of “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” is an ingenious repurposing of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ sinisterly upbeat “Happy House” (the line “This is is fun fun fun fun fun fun” never sounded so perverse), but that foreboding is only preamble to a foray down the darker corners of the Weeknd’s twisted hallways. Tesfaye promises: “I’m a nice guy/With some nice dreams/But I can turn this to a nightmare on Elm Street,” and midway though the song he does, grinding the beats down into oppressive electro-funk reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” Together with the persistent images of excess (“A handful of pills, no chasers” “No closed doors/ So I listen her moans echo” “I’m so gone, so gone/ Bring out the glass tables”) the throbbing bass brings a vivid sensation of stoned paranoia. The Weeknd are masters at capturing the immorality and insanity of the late night after party, the kind of scene with open bedrooms, black lights, and fridges filled with nothing but bottled water — a place, Tesfaye aptly describes, where “time don’t exist.”
Ironically, House of Balloons climaxes with “The Morning,” a come-down for the ages. Over liquefied blues guitar licks and warm, inviting chords, Tesfaye sounds like Babyface recounting an epic night of coked-out indulgence. “The Morning” is brazen in its hedonism — not in a working-you-up way, but in a cold, calculated “listen to all this shit we did” way: “Got the walls kickin’ like they’re six months pregnant/ Drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast/ Girls calling cabs at dawn, quarter to seven” But Tesfaye follows it up with the stark, brutally lucid “Sky’s getting cold,” and you can feel the chill in his voice. It’s a defining moment on House of Balloons because for the first time a mournful loneliness leaks through the bravado. Upon repeated listens, the album becomes as much about The Weeknd wrestling with their demons as enjoying the late nights. For every girl Tesfaye sleeps with, there’s a moment of regret (“They don’t want my love/ They just want my potential”), and for every line he snorts, a pained confession of moral weakness (“With this money comes problems and with these problems come solutions/And I use them”) In the end, he doesn’t pull any punches while beating himself up: “I ain’t lying to nobody but me.”
House of Balloons is a record made and marketed with intelligence — that’s obvious from its slick production and shrewd, word-of-mouth promotion (with that missing “e,” the Weeknd’s name is practically built for tweeting). Whether Tesfaye is singing from personal experience or it’s just a persona, it’s fascinating to uncover his character’s split-personality. Is he the guy whose downing codeine cups and emptying out his credit cards for hookers or the articulate, painfully self-aware kid who knows he’s fucked up and in denial? It may be hard for listeners to believe the narratives are real, but when the vision is this vivid, it doesn’t really matter if the story is fiction or not.
For better or worse, House of Balloons is connecting with a wide audience, a whole sub-culture of people who either identify with its disturbing lifestyle or are fascinated by it. Even people who don’t really follow R&B (like me) are getting caught up in spooky chill of this album. In 2011, when R&B’s stylistic influences are showing up all over the work of artists in alternative music (Radiohead), electronic (James Blake), pop (Adele) and rap underground (Frank Ocean), the Weeknd are perhaps the genre’s most potent manifestation. To some extent, House of Balloons has become the uncompromising, depraved work of art that Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sought to be, except sexier, less overwrought, and enhanced by a much-needed dose of humility.
The most compelling drug albums (Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and David Bowie’s Station to Station) are the ones that transfer the artist’s feelings of unpleasantness, intoxication, and exhaustion directly to the listener. House of Balloons does this; at first, you feel a bit uneasy while listening to the record, but somewhere around four or five plays, it becomes your best friend. If that doesn’t capture the shivery allure of addiction, I’m not sure what does. I’ll be frank; part of me is genuinely relieved to be done with this review because I need to put this album down for awhile. The fact that its remains so listenable is testament to the Weeknd’s brilliance in making something so toxic taste so sweet. Be forewarned. Like a needle into skin, this one gets under yours.