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The Weeknd – House of Balloons

April 12, 2011

I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again: I love a good genre-defying artist. A musical exploration that doesn’t confine to the set standards of rap or rock, or bridges the gap between the two (or, obviously, more) genres. The Weeknd is just that – it’s an amalgamation of samples from all types of music, slow ambient beats, and gentle R&B vocals with harsh sexual references. This sounds altogether fresh to my ears, and I’m pretty sure no one else is making music like this right now, which is fantastic. This mélange is none more apparent than on “The Morning”. And it’s with this track that I introduce you to The Weeknd’s  self-released debut mixtape, House of Balloons.

The Weeknd – The Morning

Now, it’s fair to say that most artists could fit into the genre of un-genre-lisable (lol), given that each artist is unique, and isn’t just ripping off someone else, but instead building on the things they know and like to create their own sound. Or, so one would hope.
But this doesn’t mean genres are impossible, and they are in many cases very useful for categorising music. And I suppose The Weeknd is actually quite easily genrelisable as something like… post-R&B. But that’s not really the point – the point is that I reserve lots of praise for musicians who like to push the boundaries of their music, not conforming even to their own expectations, and it seems these days it’s a lot easier to “push boundaries” if you are an electronic artist. Last month I talked about Jamie Woon‘s transition from acoustic guitar singer/songwriter to dubstep extraordinaire, and The Weeknd is another remarkable example of an artist modifying their repertoire, in this case with spacious drums and edgy samples, to create something altogether new. The end result sounds like Pink Floyd meets R Kelly meets Spank Rock. Or more accurately, like a ruder, ambient-er Drake. Speaking of Drake, the fellow countryman has been hyping this “dope” mixtape for a while. Thanks, Drake!

The Weeknd is dirty minded 20 year old Abel Tesfaye from Toronto, Canada. He began his musical carreer as more of a singer songwriter, but says he has been greatly inspired by fellow countryman Drake, (who, as I mentioned, has done his fair bit to help promotion) and it does show on the record.

But to me, Abel has just two inspirations: sex and drugs. With a striking number of drug references similar in number to those of Curren$y and more sexual references than Snoop Dogg, The Weeknd is sure to offend many but he gets my recommendation, if for nothing else, for speaking his mind (what else would be on the mind of a 20 year old?).

The Weeknd – High For This

The record begins with ‘High For This’, with eerie synth and spacious drums we are quickly reminded “You don’t know what’s in store/But you know what you’re in for” before the beat drops and we are taken through a euphoric, nay scary, sexual adventure (“you wanna be high for this…”).

‘What You Need’ is a slightly gentler melancholic love song (He’s what you want/I’m what you need) with a beautifully simple synth bringing out the best in the gentle vocals. Props at this point to the other two members of The Weeknd: the two producers, Doc McKinney and Illangelo (not, as many suspected, Noah “40” Shebib, of Drake fame), who turn this into a dubstep-esque masterpiece, and indeed do a fantastic job (with vocal production in particular) throughout the whole mixtape.

My personal favourite track is ‘The Morning’, a lustful and woeful tale presumably about a prostitute. It follows another highlight, an epic two-parter ‘House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls’ which begins life as close to a straightforward R&B song as The Weeknd gets, before literally descending (with a great synth effect) into twisted tale about personal sexual experiences and a somewhat cliched intrinsic look at his lifestyle choice as an honest rapper. “I ain’t no fucking phoney” he proclaims. I believe him.

The aforementioned infusion of R&B and indie music is seen in the warped Beach House sample on ‘The Party & The Afterparty’, another epic 7-minute track about.. you guessed it.. sex with several girls at a party, and ensuing afterparty. ‘Coming Down’ brings us back to the chilled groove with another nice sample, and another melancholy love tale: “I always want you when I’m coming down.. pick up your phone/the parties finished/and i want you to know/ I’m all alone/ I’m feeling everything”.
‘Loft Music’ contains the second Beach House sample of  the mixtape, and the album closes with ‘The Knowing’, and I detect just a hint of Michael Jackson in his vocal style.

The Weeknd – House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls

So that’s it. The Weeknd. This blew my socks off on first listen, and I still think, whether you like it or not, you have to appreciate the boundary-pushing direction this artist has taken, and at such a young age has created a cohesive collection of well thought out and well mixed tracks, which offer an interpretation of modern rap/r&b/experimental music. House of Balloons is a fantastically executed debut release, feels like a complete album rather than a mixtape. I love that the dark and moody theme is constant throughout the record, and I might go as far as to call it a concept album.

I see this as something of a milestone not just for R&B, but for music in general – young up&coming artists pushing the limits of what is accepted as contemporary  music, and each adding their own flavour to the pot. Genre is no longer the deciding factor, the quality of the songs transcends the listeners pre-disposition to listen to a particular brand of music. My hope is that with each quality new artist, sounds will continue to diversify, and such crossovers will continue to happen, and eventually the genre-labelling will become so complicated that we’ll have to think up a new system altogether.

House of Balloons is available as a free download from the-weeknd.com, or you can listen to it on soundcloud. And check out the TWLT playlist!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. reg permalink
    April 12, 2011 11:06 pm

    “concept album”
    ??

  2. April 13, 2011 8:12 am

    In music, a concept album is an album that is “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical”. Commonly, concept albums tend to incorporate preconceived musical or lyrical ideas rather than being improvised or composed in the studio, with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story. This is in contrast to the practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected (lyrically or otherwise) songs performed by the artist.

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