It’s only a matter of time before the weirdoes rise from a dominant genre of popular music, hijack it, and redefine its soul. Contemporary R&B, which rose to prominence in the late-1980s, is the proud mother of a few remarkable upstarts who are now undermining and reinvigorating her rich musical tradition. Artists such as Frank Ocean and Tom Krell, and to a lesser extent James Blake and Jamie Woon, are a bold new breed of R&B. Uniquely (for lack of a better word) indie in character, they are willing to discard the particulars of the genre while retaining its form. Consequently, most of the chatter and excitement they stir rarely originates from traditional R&B outlets, but from the same sources that typically herald garage punks and precious singer-songwriters. Nitsuh Abebe has called this development “how indie music and R&B keep finding more ways to play nice.”
Last year, the indie blogosphere rightfully trumpeted Abel Tesfaye (also known as The Weeknd), the most prolific (and arguably the most ambitious) member of the new R&B vanguard. His first mixtape House of Balloons appeared in early 2011 and was surrounded by calculated mystery and purposeful obfuscation. Who was The Weeknd? How exactly did Drake, an early advocate, and his producer Noah "40" Shebib, fit into the puzzle? Were these nine songs authentic documents of debauchery or merely exercises in wish fulfillment? The enigma was tantalizing, but the songs themselves were even more so. Menacing, lousy with sex without actually being sexy (unlike mainstream R&B), drugged-out, hopeless, and sonically mesmerizing, House of Balloons was celebrated by just about everyone at the time of release and on year-end lists (including ours).
As more details, and The Weeknd’s follow-up mixtape Thursday, came to light — again with a level of deliberateness that indicated Tesfaye was more a savvy self-promoter than a true cipher — the focus shifted from his persona to the music itself. Both began to disappoint a little. Thursday, a less-immediate collection, was greeted with more curiosity than excitement. It was all but ignored by the same year-end lists that its predecessor dominated (including ours). Abel Tesfaye became more public and even played a show in Toronto, his hometown. The performance, with Tesfaye appearing at times boyish, even amateurish, belied the swagger found on his recorded compositions. In late December of 2011, The Weeknd (out of nowhere, of course) released another mixtape, Echoes of Silence, thus completing the trilogy. All told, twenty-seven songs in nine months. Not bad for a twenty-one year old.
And now the mixtapes, which have been given a sparkling new studio polish and three new songs, are being officially released as Trilogy. House of Balloons remains Tesfaye’s definitive work. It establishes Trilogy’s signature template of the languid jam, heavy with synthesizers, foreboding guitar chords, and clattering beats, with left-field samples (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Beach House) and references (Chris Isaac, Cocteau Twins) sprinkled on top. Tesfaye’s sorrowful falsetto, liberally treated with reverb and Auto-Tune, always seems out of reach, floating about but never fully committing to the degeneracy it communicates. House of Balloons’ highlights (“Wicked Games,” “The Knowing”) lure and unnerve equally. Though Tesfaye’s lyrics can be alarming, we’re often rescued by a big chorus (the “Happy House” sing-along of “Glass Table Girls”) or at the very least a huge hook (the gargantuan bass-line of “High for This”).
Unlike Frank Ocean, The Weeknd is more about atmospherics and production than gorgeous melodies or pure vocal performances. And unlike How To Dress Well, The Weeknd never fully embraces experimentation, making these songs oddly middle of the road. This can be a trap, as Tesfaye and his production team (Doc McKinney and Illangelo, with appearances by Clams Casino and DropxLife) sometimes give these songs one too many bong hits and allow them to drift away, glassy-eyed and aimless. This problem is most prevalent on Thursday, Trilogy’s unfocused middle child. While “Lonely Star” and “Life of the Party” brim with the same urgency found on Balloons, “Rolling Stone,” “The Zone,” and “Thursday” take time to unfurl. Surprisingly, the trilogy’s longest track, the spooky and compelling “Gone,” shows Tesfaye can make the wooziest slow jam instantly engaging.
Echoes of Silence lacks the joy of discovery that greeted Balloons and also (perhaps unfairly) inherits the accumulated fatigue of a party dragging on into the late morning. By its own merit, Echoes is song-for-song the most impressive installment on Trilogy. Tesfaye has refined the best aspects of Balloons and Thursday. Echoes is taut and vigorous, a leap forward within well-worn territory. “D.D.,” a pummeling, jaw-dropping cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” kicks off the set. Tesfaye’s faithful vocal execution illuminates the elements of Jackson’s delivery he’s been aping all along without notice (which is even more blatant on Trilogy’s bonus tracks).. Thematically, the song fits comfortably in The Weeknd’s world, only Tesfaye is, for once, the victim here. Not to be upstaged by a classic, every song that follows is uniformly excellent: “Montreal” is the rare seductive Weeknd track; “Outside,” “XO/The Host,” and “Same Old Song” are Tesfaye’s most successful attempts at contemporary R&B melodies; bravura and sorrowful, “The Fall” is the hands-down standout of the lot, the comeuppance Tesfaye doesn’t fear but deserves. Nothing on Echoes strays too far from what's been heard before, but “Initiation” comes pretty damn close. Tesfaye raps the lyrics he sang on “XO/The Host,” his voice demonically altered. Clambering and frightening, “Initiation” is four minutes of unadulterated rock bottom.
Rather than being a smartly curated single-serve experience, Trilogy is preposterously long for a debut album. And while the solid trio of bonus songs (“Twenty Eight,” “Valerie,” and “Till Dawn (Here Comes the Sun)”) are nice to have, thirty tracks of material is an almost impenetrable barrier to entry for a casual neophyte and a slog for an established fan too. Trilogy’s three discs remain best enjoyed as separate entities.
However wasted an opportunity it is as an introduction to The Weeknd, Trilogy is still a staggering, near-perfect portrait of hedonism’s inherent depravity and bareness. And it sounds better than ever. For Abel Tesfaye’s sake and mine, I hope the utter self-destruction found on these disturbing songs is no more than make believe. After all, dead men make no music, and I could use another hit. [A]