August 17, 2011

Reader Review/For Promotional Use Only/Something Different: The Weeknd - House Of Balloons (March 21, 2011)

(In an effort to give you something a bit off-topic, today Red Magic presents his write-up for R&B outfit The Weeknd's House Of Balloons. You shouldn't take this as an open invitation to write about other musical genres, though: if you wish to stray from the beaten path with your Reader Review, you should contact me first. Side note: the album cover features a woman's left breast, so for those of you who are prudes and/or are reading this during your lunch break, you should consider this post technically unsafe for work, I guess. Anyway, here's Red Magic.)

Abel Tesfaye is not a rapper. Nor is he a hip hop artist. Instead, he is a Toronto-based singer, based primarily in the R&B world, who decided to perform under the alias The Weeknd. Tesfaye has everyone talking about The Weeknd by revealing very little about his creation: I stumbled upon The Weeknd thanks to enthusiastic Internet bloggers and YouTube. I had no idea that he had previously performed under the name The Noise; I wasn't aware that he is currently an unofficial part of Aubrey “Drake” Graham's camp. In fact, I'm not really much of an advocate of R&B: I will throw on the odd Janelle Monáe record but, generally speaking, rhythm and blues has never been a huge part of my life. At first glance, The Weeknd's debut mixtape, House Of Balloons, doesn't look all that impressive, either: the album cover is a photograph of a woman sitting in a bathtub, her naked body shielded from the camera by black and white balloons while her left breast dangles out at the corner.

With The Weeknd, Tesfaye has gone out of his way to come across as a puzzling enigma. Why did he pick a name that seems like it would be for a group? Why did he change from his original pseudonym? Why did he spell it without an “e”? Is Tesfaye having a laugh? Is he dyslexic? Is it a printing error? Does he just think it’s cool? Fuck knows. Evidently the question you two are asking, though, is, “Why are you reviewing House Of Balloons? We want rap, not instantly forgettable R&B music, fuck you very much.” Well, that’s a fair question. The only explanation I have is that I was not impressed by Drake’s Thank Me Later, which consisted of poorly-performed weak observations. (This is obviously subject to debate.) However, I find it both rewarding and important to compare artists, especially when there are evident similarities. Both Drake and Abel are from Toronto; both have proven musical talent (yes, Drake too). And although they are competing in different genres, it quickly becomes apparent that their music is reasonably similar. They've also crossed paths already: Abel recorded a demo for Drake, which was later shunted on to The Noise EP, and has also remixed his newer track “Trust Issues”. Moreover, Noah “40” Shebib, the main producer on Thank Me Later, was supposedly involved House Of Balloons but, alas, is nowhere to be found on the final cut. Instead, Tesfaye’s chums Doc McKinney (who has produced for Young Buck, of all people) and Illangelo take charge of production whilst Abel himself handles the mic.

So without further ado, let’s oil up and get to listening.

No intro bullshit here. House Of Balloons opens with one of the greatest mixtape tracks I have ever heard. Once the drums kick in, the listener becomes enveloped in the world of The Weeknd. The most surprising feature of this song is that Tesfaye isn't really saying much on here: the story is just about trying to persuade a girl to take drugs. The real reason why this song astounds is because it’s jam-packed with genuine emotion. The first verse sets the tone by declaring, “You don’t know what’s in store / But you know what you’re here for”: at first you assume Tesfaye is talking to the listener, but we are merely observers, witnessing something much more personal than merely a song. Lyrics such as “Don’t be scared / I’m right here”, coupled with the nocturnal production, epitomize the poignant message of this track. Are you listening, Mr. Graham?

Similar to Drake, The Weeknd is clearly influenced by Aaliyah. On this track, McKinney and Illangelo sample “Rock the Boat” and produce a good, but not barnstorming, beat. The production sounds similar to Fat Joe breathing too heavily into my ear after stealing some donuts from the police station. However, if you look past this glitch, the listener is rewarded with Tesfaye perfecting the art of the pause, stopping just long enough for the lyrics to sink in (“He’s what you want / I’m what you need”).

Bloggers seem to underline this track as the magnum opus of The Weeknd. The first part of the song is certainly striking: Tesfaye is, once again, the star of the show, controlling the bouncy beat (which samples Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Happy House”) with extraordinary valour. However, I feel the second half doesn't fit, both as part of this track and within the context of House Of Balloons itself. Tesfaye’s voice seems incompatible with this rough beat, and although this is the closest he’ll come to rapping on House of Balloons, there is too much wobble to impress, and our host's voice comes off as vomiting confetti. Tesfaye could have problems adapting to alternative beats. I guess time will tell.

True, songs about money are nothing new in either the rap or R&B genres. However, instead of bragging about how much dough he has, Tesfaye croons the infamous goal, “All that money / The money is the motive”. He isn't questioning this subject: instead, he's revealing his objective in life to the listener. Moreover, on this record he drops the best verse on House Of Balloons: “Better slow down, she’ll feel it in the morning / Ain’t the kind of girl you’ll be seeing in the morning.” The opening melody is also tantalizing and upbeat.

We are then presented with what is actually the pièce de résistance on House Of Balloons. It’s hard to explain why I rate this record so highly: for some reason I keep comparing it with Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls”, which similarly uses emotion and ambiance to fabricate a work of art which does not deserve to be as awesome as it actually is. How the hell did The Weeknd construct something this brilliant on the first attempt? The opening line, “I left my girl back home / I don’t love her no more” is filled with malice but also desperation; you can just feel Tesfaye pouring out his heart and instructing – even demanding- that the Mademoiselle in the room make him feel special (“Just tell me you love me / Even though you don’t love me”). Everything about this song fits: the guitar riffs, the refrain, the murky atmosphere. “Wicked Games” penetrates deep into the soul of the listener (not a euphemism) and you will be scrambling to hit the replay button again and again. Brilliant.

Initially I thought this song was far too long for an R&B record. Nevertheless, the production on this track is dynamite, and Tesfaye does not have to do much lyrically (“Can’t believe I made it / But I made it that’s for sure”) before the novelty of the Beach House sample wears off. Although this song is absolutely fine, you will probably spool back to the previous record.

Once more the listener becomes engrossed with Tesfaye’s relationship problems. This track explores his exploitation of fame, telling his lady friend, “Girl, I have been bad again”, declaring that it is the money which generates problems, yet “with these problems comes solutions”. The interesting aspect about this track is that Abel generally seems torn, as through he has, in actual fact, lived through these occurrences and is reminiscing about them.

I vaguely remember somebody telling me that this was the second track on House Of Balloons which sampled a Beach House song. Sadly, I do not recognize the sample, which just as easily could be a leftover from the mixtape version of Drake’s So Far Gone. As for the record itself, it starts powerfully (“They see my brain melting / And the only thing I tell ‘em/Is that I’m living for the present”) but sinks into minimalism, ending with Tesfaye simply parroting the beat. Interestingly enough, one reviewer described it as “hip hop stripped down to the bare necessities”, which is lavish praise for a song which falls flat three-quarters of the way through.

House Of Balloons closes with a beast. Fuck me, this is soul music at its finest: “Now we're lying about the nights / Hiding it all behind the smiles”. Similar to “Wicked Games”, the production team employs guitar riffs and drums to construct a fantastic finale. Tesfaye is again at his best, benefiting from background vocals in addition to the dark ambiance. You can also hear a plethora of influences on this track, notably Interpol and perhaps even Drake himself. But this song is all about Abel, who rips this shit up and finishes on a high.

SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN? The Weeknd's House Of Balloons is interesting for various reasons. First of all, it entrenches my belief that every nutcase on the Internet who declares that today’s music is merely a ripoff and not worth listening to is simply wrong: there is good music to be found both in the past and in the present. Of course, I still enjoy flicking through instant classics, such as Radiohead’s The Bends or Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, but I also desire to hear something different and fresh. I am not saying that The Weeknd is at the top of the hierarchy or anything: much more clever writers than myself have classified The Weeknd as boring, verbal rubbish, and the two readers of this site may dismiss me as a pawn jumping on the hype train. Undoubtedly, there is a huge difference between merely putting out a single mixtape and consistently delivering classic albums. Artists can very quickly become lost in the music industry; for example, Wale, whose Mixtape About Nothing was an instant hit, failed to deliver when confronted with the task of releasing an actual album. Nonetheless, not since The xx's debut album xx have I been this impressed by a musical outfit. There is so much going on in the House Of Balloons that it’s hard to comprehend on the first, second or even third listen. It's even kind of hard to take on board; it’s like being told your father’s gay. I'm aware that there are other artists (such as James Blake, Nicolas Jaar, or Kanye West – yes, I just said Kanye West) who are simply better than The Weeknd and that Tesfaye is a dwarf-like jigsaw puzzle piece in the leitmotiv of today’s music. However, music is not only about great lyrics or hiring the best production team; instead, the artist has to generally believe what he is saying is profound and interesting, and this is exactly what Abel Tesfaye has done. I have not found a store which sells a hard copy, but seeing as House Of Balloons is available as a free download, I would urge you to give it a listen. If you are like me and were disappointed with Thank Me Later, this is the perfect substitute.

- Red Magic

(Questions? Comments? Leave your notes below.)


  1. Although I wasn't disappointed by 'Thank Me Later', as I didn't expect shit, this was an outstanding release. I enjoyed the article, thanks.

  2. it's like the soundtrack to a gay orgy.. i just implicated myself but i swear i didnt participate

  3. balloons and titties? two thumbs up

  4. MysterygrimmsAugust 20, 2011

    Really good mixtape and I don't even like R&B...

  5. damn only 4 comments for this dope-ass album? damn y'all some busters on here. great review for a great album.