April 14, 2011

Test Spin: The Weeknd

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The Weeknd arrived on the scene as if out of thin air. Until just a few weeks ago, little was known about this enigmatic R&B group fresh out of Toronto. The rumor-mill first began churning when fellow Canuck Drake posted a few of their tracks on his OVO blog, with talk that his producer, Noah “40” Shebib, may be a part of the project (The Weeknd has since been adamant to deny his involvement). Shortly after posting their debut mixtape, House of Balloons, on their website free for all to download, The Weeknd have exploded all over the interwebs, generating hype and gaining support in the most unlikely of places.

Seldom has an R&B album garnered so much attention from such a diverse collection of fans, with zealous praise coming from the likes of the indie crowd, hip-hop heads and mainstream R&B devotees. What is so surprising about this far-flung success is that House of Balloons is by no means a pop album; it is hardly even in the realm of what most would consider the conventional framework for a commercial hit. The nine songs that comprise the album are slow and unorthodox, and the lyrics run rampant with excessive drug-use and graphic sexual deeds unfit for the radio. Much of The Weeknd’s strength stems from the unique sound they have created; a melding of genres that combines R&B sensibilities with foggy, electro-infused beats and inventive sampling of artists ranging from Beach House to Burial. The end result is deliciously sinful.

“You don’t know what’s in store/but you know what you are here for.” From the very first lines of the opening song “High For This,” House of Balloons invites the listener in for what is surely going to be a wild ride. Abel Tesfaye, the vocals behind The Weeknd, has the necessary silky smooth voice and blatant sex appeal characteristic of any R&B singer, but that’s where the similarities end. Yes, the typical R&B locales, the bedroom and the club, serve as the settings for Tesfaye’s lyrical exploits, but here, the lust, pleasure and intoxication are laced with desolation and sinister undertones.

Tesfaye appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. The dissolution of his love life, coupled with heavy drug discourse, paints a picture of a man seeking to fill some empty void, or at least to forget for a little while. On songs such as “The Morning,” sex-drenched lyrics are saturated by hollow airy distortion and spaced out synthesizer beats, creating an intriguing and at times haunting ambiance. Production from Doc McKinney and Illangelo is sparse but effective, and thankfully so, allowing for the emphasis to remain on Tesfaye’s intense vocals.

“Wicked Games” serves as a halfway point on the album and is at times both a testament to and a warning of the lavish lifestyles and hard partying of the hedonistic. When Tesfaye sings, “Bring your love baby I could bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby I could bring my pain,” you can’t help but be simultaneously fearful and captivated. Although The Weeknd never shies away from subject matter that is at times difficult to comprehend, House of Balloons is as addicting as the lifestyle it illuminates.

Original Author: Sarah Angell