You can tell a genre of music is dying when a) it gives too much of itself away to a radio-ready pop sound, and b) it becomes artistically stagnant, with too few of its practitioners willing (or able) to innovate and move the genre forward. With Usher’s lowest-common-denominator Pop&B, as well as Chris Brown’s douchbaggery and Trey Songz’s utter mediocrity dominating the charts, R&B music has certainly been sliding in that general direction over the past few years. These guys can dance and sing (or whine) with the best of them, but their music is just formulaic, thematically bland, and entirely missing any kind of edge whatsoever. Too much watered-down Michael Jackson and not nearly enough Prince, in a nutshell.
Maybe these R&B cats thought they were safe from the kind of utter embarrassment and panic OFWGKTA is inflicting on Hip Hop’s many phony, undercover pop stars. No such luck, sorry. Allow me to introduce you to The Weeknd’s House of Balloons.
Say hello to the dark, smoldering future of Rhythm and Blues.
Musically, The Weeknd (pronounced “the weakened”) creates a sonic landscape that’s somewhere in between Sade and Portishead; it is a sound that is equal parts seductive and nightmarish. This is the soundtrack to the after party after the after party; you think you had fun, but you wish you’d gone home. Like Drake’s Thank Me Later (to which the Weeknd is very indebted), House of Balloons is stunning in its cohesiveness, with a consistency in mood that is downright hypnotic. Ominous synths roil and rumble over droning bass, creating a surreal and supremely drugged-out atmosphere throughout.
And House of Balloons’ musical backdrop is perfectly crafted to support the album’s lyrical content. If you want cookie-cutter platitudes about “buying out the bar” and putting on your dancing shoes, listen to fucking Omarion. The Weeknd is a freakishly hedonistic lyricist, spinning detailed webs of drugs, sex, and betrayal against a backdrop of expensive lofts, depraved women, and a general decadence, melancholia and moral decay that both disturbs and yet feels entirely honest. He begs forgiveness from his girl for a drug-laden hookup by offering “I always want you when I’m coming down” on the haunting “Coming Down,” and suggests “If it hurts to breathe, open a window” on “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” (a title that can’t not be referencing coke). But the slow burning “The Knowing” is the real standout here. Over heartbreakingly bleak waves of electric guitar, vocalist Abel Testfaye takes on a ghostlike quality, transparently shrugging off his significant other’s indiscretions, incanting “You probably thought you that you’d break my heart/You probably thought that you’d make me crawl/But baby it’s ok/It’s ok/Cause I know everything.”
You can clearly hear a bit of The Dream and R Kelly in The Weeknd, but House of Balloons is unmistakably something very different. Like its stark, black-and-white cover art, it relishes in an enrapturing mystery and irresistible insidiousness. And in tandem with Frank Ocean’s similarly forward-reaching nostalgia, ULTRA, it’s a collection of songs that are sure to make a huge impact in the coming months.
A twisted, NSFW, “be a good parent and don’t let your kids listen to this” sort of impact, to be exact.