Monday, March 21, 2011

The Weeknd's Disillusioned Modern R&B

The Canadian act releases its debut mixtape, House of Balloons

By Evan Rytlewski
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If information about The Weeknd is scarce, it's not for lack of a web presence. The Canadian project—possibly the work of a lone singer-songwriter or a singer and producer team, according to conflicting reports—maintains a website, Twitter account, Tumblr blog and Facebook page. If they wanted to, they could have easily slapped a couple lines of basic biographical info on to one of those sites by now, but perhaps it's for the best that they haven't, since doing so would almost certainly bias listeners. Like it or not, an artist's background shapes how we interpret their music, and knowing whether The Weeknd is a well-financed electronic producer, a black contemporary R&B singer or a couple of white liberal arts students (all very real possibilities, to judge by the music alone) would make it difficult to separate the actual music from preconceived notions.

That's not to say that hiding their identity has completely stopped those preconceived notions, of course. Some message boards have already dismissed The Weeknd as another high-concept Pitchfork-indie-R&B hybrid a la How to Dress Well, though that doesn't really seem to be the case. Unlike the aggressively experimental How to Dress Well, which pieces together not-quite-songs from distorted bits and snippets of remembered R&B, The Weeknd plays on R&B as it exists right now, crafting moody slow-jams that, even when they're sampling Beach House or appropriating the chorus from Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Happy House," would fit in comfortably on a playlist between Drake and The-Dream (that Drake has endorsed the group has even led to speculation that Drake's producer 40 is somehow behind them; apparently he isn't). Also distinguishing The Weeknd from How to Dress Well: a penchant for huge choruses—the sort a professional songwriter could make a mint on—and a singer who can really sing. Making up for what it lacks in size with smoothness, his voice deftly replicates the anguished tremble of Trey Songz.

If that all sounds great, it is. The Weeknd's new mixtape, House of Balloons, posted for free download here, is fantastic from start to finish. But there's a caveat: For many, the brash lyrics will be a deal breaker. Like his contemporary R&B muses, the singer peppers his verses with superfluous profanity, which sounds much more absurd coming out of his mouth than it does theirs (at his worst he comes across like the wedding singer from Old School doing a glib R. Kelly parody). Singers like Drake and The-Dream curse to pad their boasts, typically directing their cusses at no one in particular, but too often The Weeknd's singer aims his at women, whether he's demanding that they strip or accusing them of using him ("What the fuck these bitches on?" he steams on a typical verse, "They want what I'm sitting on.") There's a fine line between machismo and just being a dick, and he's well past it.

That crassness, off-putting in small doses, threatens to grate over the course of an entire album-length mixtape, yet repeated listens reveal that there's some commentary at play behind those seemingly vain lyrics. Taken together, House of Balloon's nine songs about hard drugs and empty sex form an unflattering study of the party lifestyle. Every party is followed by a morning after; every high by a hangover; and every sexual conquest by a punishing sense of disillusionment. These songs are as concerned with consequences as they are gratification.

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