Anonymous singer The Weeknd drops stellar debut mixtape
The anonymous R&B singer The Weeknd recently released his 9-song debut, “House of Balloons” – a staggering mix of R&B, dubstep and indie/avant-garde samples. The mixtape sounds like Drake during his most wallowing moments, offering a dark and despairing insight into the world of drug consumption that, for all its sadness and futility, is also undeniably catchy, or perhaps addicting itself.
Opener “High for This” begins somewhat conventionally: hypnotic drum slugging and reverb-drowned vocals a la Drake. However, when The Weeknd implores, “Open your head,” electronic fuzz and dubstep beats suddenly pulsate, awakening the song from its swoon. This weekend party has all the elements of contemporary mainstream rap—lots of drugs and girls—but even when The Weeknd sings the song’s chorus, “Even though you don’t roll / Trust me girl / You wanna be high for this,” he is hardly glorifying this hedonism.
Rather, the song sounds chilling and desperate; being “High for This” is not just part of the party, it is a necessity.
“What You Need” follows, sounding most-appropriate for mainstream audiences; it is relatively short (around 3:30), has a lush, jangly beat and can be construed as a love-song: “He’s what you want / I’m what you need.” On an album focusing on drugs, however, the metaphor of addiction becomes quickly apparent, especially when The Weeknd sings, “I’m the drug in your veins.”
Besides the shorter “What You Need,” most of the songs on “House of Balloons” surpass the five-minute mark. The mixtape’s highlight, “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” nears 7 minutes, beginning with fuzzy waves of electronic noise and a psychedelic sample from Siouxsie and the Banshees, which revels in its drug-filled indulgence: “This is a happy house / We’re happy here in the happy house / This is fun, fun, fun, fun…”
The song unwinds midway into the sludgy beat of “Glass Table Girls,” capturing the dingy atmosphere of a cocaine-filled after-party: “We could test out the tables / We got some brand new tables / All glass and it’s four feet wide / But it’s enough to get us ten feet high.” The Weeknd alters his normally echoing and despondent vocals with aggressive and confrontational near-whispering, evoking tension and a sense of looming danger.
“House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” captures the ethos of the perpetually high hip-hop and rap scene, and it is therefore not just one of the better songs released this year but also one of the most culturally and historically significant.
“The Morning” appropriately follows: the slowed down, reflective hangover, where the leftover “codeine cups paint a picture so vivid” of the night before. Other highlights include “The Party & The After Party,” which artfully samples indie-darlings Beach House, and “Wicked Games,” an achingly melancholic confessional of false-love and, you guessed it, drug use.
Much like Elliott Smith’s posthumous “From a Basement on a Hill,” a haunting collection of songs about drug-addiction and dying recorded when Smith essentially was a walking corpse, “House of Balloons” sounds frighteningly earnest—the harrowing words from a moribund singer. If true art is suffering, “House of Balloons” is a ghastly masterpiece.
Kevin Stevens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.