In the first minutes of The Weeknd’s “House of Balloons” you get the feeling what you’re hearing is something new.
On the song “High For This,” a spaced-out kick-snare beat leads way to a dubstep chorus as The Weeknd’s yet unnamed lead man soars over the track with a rawness reminiscent of R. Kelly. The production is top-notch, and the lyrics are honest. But it’s dark.
Absent from the track is the swagger and bravado all too typical of recent hip-hop/R&B artists. When the greatest moment of the genre is a feature by hip-hop veteran Busta Rhymes on Chris Brown’s latest release, perhaps this is a good thing.
But The Weeknd isn’t a beacon of morality – far from it. The Canadian two-man collective’s brooding nine-track debut release is a cohesive vignette of heartbreak and hedonism. It’s a story about sex and drugs, infidelities and insecurities. Instead of swagger, The Weeknd’s vocalist narrates the story with painful self-awareness. And because of this honesty, the music is alluring and intoxicating. The protagonist in this story is an anti-hero, but a hero nonetheless.
The album plays out like a party that drags into the night, ultimately revealing the dark side of an urban devil-may-care lifestyle. The tracks that are the most accessible feature minimalistic grooves and subtle but daring minor chord progressions. The vocals push the tracks even further into the shadows with soulful, often pain-filled finesse and vibrato.
Over the poppy guitar and glitter of “The Morning,” our dark hero raps in a singsong moan, “All that money, the money is the motive/ Girl put in work.” “What You Need” sounds like a collaboration between Sade and The xx, and the heavy and raw “Wicked Games” is darker still, with lyrics like “Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain.”
“The Party & The After Party” is the light/dark threshold of “House of Balloons.” The seven minute 40 second track starts out with references to designer labels and clever sexual advances. Halfway through, however, the song, and subsequently the album, winds down and spirals into darkness as the party takes a turn for the worse.
On “Coming Down,” he laments love lost, and on the song “Loft Music,” lyrics of false bravado reveal vulnerability. On the final track, “The Knowing,” The Weeknd’s singer is vocally at his best, soaring over a massive pulsating beat, singing, “You probably thought that you’d make me hurt, but baby it’s okay/I know everything.”
It’s a powerful cinematic ending. The main character of the story sings triumphantly, but is still lost.
“House of Balloons” is a genius piece of work. Lyrics like “Imma love you girl, the way you need/ain’t no-one will stop us,” aren’t groundbreaking, but over the somber reverberating chords and bells of “What You Need,” these oft-abused phrases take on a new tone of desperation.
What we’re hearing is “He’s what you want, I’m what you need,” when really our dark hero is the one who needs something, something more than the drugs, drinks and women have been able to give him. That The Weeknd is releasing such a depraved and personal record now is smart – when the rest of the industry is making club bangers; when Justin Beiber is our younger brothers’ generation’s role model and Rebecca Black may very well be on her way to being the same for our sisters.
We have the Internet to thank for The Weeknd and other promising up-and-coming acts in hip-hop like Odd Future and Lil’ B. They’ve used social networking, such as Twitter and Tumblr to cultivate independent fan bases and catch the ears of amateur music critics.
Some of their popularity is due to the personal nature of the music. They’re telling stories that haven’t been told before, returning to the roots of a genre today inundated by money-getting pop icons with nothing real to say.
Will “House of Balloons” be remembered as a game-changing record? It’s doubtful. Will The Weeknd be the next role model for our urban youth? Probably not. But it is a powerful album, and at least they’re telling stories again. And this, ultimately, is a good thing.