I was finishing up college when the then-more-mysterious R&B project The Weeknd dropped their first mixtape, “House of Balloons,” for free online.
Unfortunately for 21-year-old Canadian Abel Tesfaye (who’s credited as
singer and songwriter) not enough has changed in that time to warrant
increased praise for “Thursday,” although that’s not to say he’s produced (with the help of veteran Doc McKinney and the also-mysterious Illangelo) a bad album.
Far from it, in fact. “Thursday”’s a terrific R&B record, creeping and grinding along at a pace appropriate for a sequel to the menacing, borderline-nihilistic “Balloons.”
What the second album (Tesfaye promised a trio by the end of the year — all to be downloaded online, for free) lacks is the cloak of enigma that surrounded the first. What made “Balloons” so menacing was the anonymity of its originator, who seemed to live in a sinister, otherworldly party realm inhabited by too-skinny models desperate for cocaine and fame, and a host of libidinous monsters preying on them.
Or perhaps The Weeknd ought to be credited for seemingly picking up where they thematically left off. Opening track “Lonely Star” is all temptation, an eerie beckoning that everybody but the object of seduction knows to be trickery. Much of “Balloons” concerned what Tesfaye called a “dream world” on “Loft Music,” but “Life of the Party” on “Thursday” is a grungy, twitchy “other side,” as he terms it in the first line. Slowed-down reggae is the new sound, and it’s getting more specific. She’s tried drugs and now the narrator’s got “a roomful of niggas” for her to — ahem — entertain.
Fellow young Canuck Drake (to whom Tesfaye is indebted for introducing The Weeknd to the public consciousness in the first place) contributes a verse to “The Zone,” which juxtaposes a beat that belongs in a human chest against some of the least humane, exploitative and confused lyrics in R&B.
While we’re on that topic: This is not the R&B of Kelly Rowland, Big Sean and Beyoncé. This is the R&B of parties hosted by rappers and singers when their wives are away. It’s the gritty tales of a thousand nameless, faceless girls allured and debauched. It’s Tesfaye’s silky voice shrouding confusion and disillusionment.
It’s good to know that innovative R&B hasn’t surrendered completely to a hipster interpretation of the genre (hilariously coined PBR&B on account of acts like How to Dress Well), and even better to know that this is only part two of a trilogy. —Matt Carney