For years now, artists have been attempting to bridge the gap between hipster and radio; appealing to a hubris of the indie market, but being played by major radio and TV stations simultaneously. No easy feat. One might cite Kanye West as an example but even his Pitchfork-worshipped My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received little to no airtime, save for maybe “Power” and a few spins of “Runaway,” we’re still waiting on a legitimate hit from Fantasy. Arcade Fire is one staple that has been able to eternalize independent and mainstream demographics, but in terms of the hip hop genre, this can be a more difficult endeavor. Drake has done well, Kid Cudi certainly appeals to anyone who enjoys pot, even Wiz Khalifa’s got a bit of an indie fanbase. But more-so than any of these aforementioned artists, more susceptible to be adored by r&b fans and connoisseurs of original interpretation alike, is the newest Internet sensation, The Weeknd, which seem destined to scope beyond the depths of the web, and into the homes of every r&b and indie lover on the planet.
The Weeknd emerged seemingly out of nowhere, much kudos deserving to fellow Torontonian Drake who posted a few tracks by them on his October’s Very Own blog. Since then, word spread like wildfire about this mysterious r&b group that favors electronic construction and spaced out synthesizer beats over customary pop bearings. Serving as an accompaniment to Abel Tesfaye’s luxuriously soulful vocals, and tales of drugs, heartbreak and relationship woes, The Weeknd are the most original rhythm and bass outfit to come out since How To Dress Well. The fact that releasing their debut mixtape, House Of Balloons, caused several Internet sites to crash, only grants them additional merit.
What separates the Weeknd from other conventional r&b groups is more than their fondness for electronica and glitchy samples similar to Star Slinger or Gold Panda. On first listen, “What You Need” falls into this category, Tesfaye’s vocals distorted and airy over the grimy bass movements and a Burial-esque vocal sample. This is no Chris Brown or Rihanna; this is sophisticated r&b catering to the most progressive palate. Then you have straight up unfiltered hip hop, beats like the Siouxsie and the Banshees quasi-cover “House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” and “Coming Down,” oozing with sexually explicit lyrics, heavy in drug discourse – “Glass Table Girls” an easy reference to coke – and as dreamy and far out as something from Drake himself.
The production here from Doc McKinneny and Illangelo is downright treacherous. Alongside Tesfaye’s equally disturbing recourse, so much of which pertains to narcotic use, (“I always want you when I’m coming down”/“Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this”) The Weeknd aren’t boasting about their sexual conquests and lavish party lifestyles; they’re painfully confessing to anyone willing to lend an ear. It’s these raw lyrics that establish them as a serious threat in the r&b sphere.
At the center of House Of Balloons stands one of the most tragic, self-loathing ballads available here. Certainly the record’s pièce de résistance, “Wicked Games” sums up Tesfaye’s dissolution about his love life, a profession of how he needs to gain confidence in himself, moaning “tell me you love me, even though you don’t love me,” singing “bring the drugs baby, I can bring the pain.” Musically, its sinister backdrop and explosive guitar riffs coincides fluidly with the desolate lyrics. “Wicked Games” serves as a premise of sorts for House Of Balloons; in a world where artists are full of self praise, this mysterious group brings a disturbingly real picture of the party life to light. Though it can be difficult to listen to, it’s almost impossible to stop listening. Even detesters of r&b will not be able deny the sheer musical prowess of House Of Balloons.