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Appreciating The Weeknd

By ; January 25, 2012 at 2:28 PM 

Nothing and nobody in the musical year of 2011 has stayed with me the way The Weeknd has. What upstart Toronto R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye pulled off over last twelve months is both truly remarkable and in some ways unprecedented. House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, his three 2011 releases, were advertised as mixtapes, but that sells their worth as albums ridiculously short. Usually when someone mentions the release of a mixtape, I think of a DIY, thrown-together collection of tracks and song fragments. They can be very good, even great, but rarely do they exhibit the consistency and attention to detail that Tesfaye’s work does. That he put out three albums mere months apart that are both meticulously plotted and exhilaratingly rough-edged, before receiving industry backing of any kind outside of Drake tweeting a few of his lyrics, is mind-boggling. This is the kind of streak of high-quality albums we usually see from bands with established fan bases and widespread support, not the opening salvo of a kid that hasn’t even been around long enough for the major labels to open a proper bidding war.

But for as much critical acclaim as Tesfaye has garnered (House of Balloons was a fixture on many publications’ year-end lists, including this one), I still feel like he’s somewhat underrated. To begin with, he has flat-out one of the most mesmerizing voices I’ve ever heard, and that isn’t an exaggeration. It’s an astonishing instrument that’s like a cross between Michael Jackson and Jeff Buckley. And while that alone would be enough to justify the praise he’s earned, it’s the risks he takes with this voice that make him compelling. An asset of this caliber is something most would elect to leave well enough alone. But Tesfaye and producer Illangelo have no qualms about bending and melding it to the point of unrecognizability. That “Gone” and “Initiation,” which feed Tesfaye through a litany of vocal filters, are as affecting as straightforward performances like “Wicked Games” and “The Morning” betrays a set of melodic smarts decades beyond his 21 years.

The Weeknd’s songs mine virtually identical lyrical territory as early supporter/sort-of mentor Drake. However, most of the time they seem to exist in entirely different universes. When Drake airs his personal insecurities and tales of sexual regret, the overarching tone is one of longing for approval and understanding from the outside world. He asks whether he’s deserving of success not out of humility, but because he likes the sound of being reassured. Tesfaye, however, gives no fucks what we think about his coke-and-empty-hookups lifestyle. He doesn’t care how most of the people in his songs view him. And a lot of the time, I’m not even sure whether he cares what he thinks of himself. His music derives its power from its complete sense of detachment from any aspect of reality, something that allows him to be nakedly and brutally honest, consequences be damned.

This defiant libertinism doesn’t come at the expense of Tesfaye’s self-awareness. He explores every dark corner of his lifestyle with uncommon clarity and nuance. Both sonically and lyrically, the way he cycles through attitudes toward his actions over the three albums gives each one not only a thematic unity but helps them function as a larger narrative arc. House of Balloons is an out-and-out celebration of sexual danger and excess; the glee in his voice is palpable on “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” and “Loft Music.” By Thursday, Tesfaye isn’t so much chasing thrills as maintaining status quo. Things don’t truly start to go off the rails until “XO/The Host,” the fourth track on Echoes of Silence. The way he tells a prospective hookup, “If they won’t let you in / you know where to find me” is dripping with a terrifying mix of lust and insanity that lays plain Tesfaye’s imminent downward spiral. The batshit “Initiation” and more resigned melancholy of “Same Old Song” and “Next” are a mere formality after that. His willingness to take risks manifested itself musically in the impossibly ballsy decision to open Echoes of Silence with a “Dirty Diana” cover. But if his lyrics are anything close to reality, the fact that it took until album number three for the self-destruction to truly kick in is nearly as astounding as the music itself.

The completeness and cohesion Tesfaye achieved with the Balloons trilogy makes his inevitable major-label debut both somewhat superfluous and utterly fascinating. The versatility of his voice and his association with Drake make him appear primed for pop superstardom. All the tools are there, but I’m curious as to how it’ll manifest itself. I’m not sure whether I’m giddy with excitement for, or utterly dreading, a future with Tesfaye as a pop hitmaker. Hearing him on Drake’s “Crew Love” was weird enough — Drizzy appeared on Thursday‘s outstanding “The Zone,” but it worked more as reinforcement of the song’s mood than as a feature on a heavily-hyped release by a heavily-hyped rapper. There were none of the peripheral trappings typical of a superstar’s guest appearance on an up-and-comer’s mixtape. When the album was released, the MP3 of “The Zone” wasn’t even tagged as “(feat. Drake).” On the other hand, the entire point of “Crew Love” is to establish Tesfaye as someone with whom marquee names should want to collaborate. But on his records, he exists completely outside of any world we could relate to, let alone one as self-referential and self-conscious as the modern-day pop-radio environment. If The Weeknd can carve out a niche for himself in the mainstream without actively making his music more palatable to pop audiences, it’ll be a minor miracle.

Or, he could flame out, either from all that coke he brags about doing or from the crushing weight of the expectations that are implied for someone doing this caliber of work this early on. If Tesfaye never recorded again, his legacy would be set. But more likely, his upcoming tour (including a pair of performances at Coachella that are all but guaranteed to be among the festival’s most talked-about) will remove just enough of the mystery that surrounds him to raise his commercial profile, while retaining enough genuine excitement about his potential to set him up for a long and successful career. He’s as exciting, fascinating, and singularly captivating as any newcomer in recent memory, and he doesn’t even have a record deal yet. Let’s hope he sticks around for a while.


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