three mixtapes in one year suggests ambition, but the fact that abel tesfaye later remastered and repackaged his as a trilogy is indicative of a carefully crafted plan, one that incidentally helped to reshape a strain of modern r&b. three years later, that strain may feel as if it’s anything but innovative – partially due to the weeknd’s lackluster debut, kiss land – but the fact remains that house of balloons, thursday, and echoes of silence dictated a large portion of music’s trajectory in 2011.
each mixtape contained nine songs that were always haunting and mournful, yet they simultaneously propped up tesfaye as one of the most talented – and downright virtuosic – singers of this young millennium. his counter-tenor range frequently gave the illusion of falsetto while rarely actually employing the technique, allowing him to convincingly cover a michael jackson song and sing countless melismatic hooks with ease. combine that talent with a team of producers just as likely to explore post-punk and indie rock as they were to sample r&b and hip-hop timbres, and it’s no wonder that the three mixtapes found within trilogy hit as hard as they did.
i personally belong to the camp that digested each mixtape individually, in their originally mastered states courtesy of free download sites like datpiff. but i also subscribe to the accepted theory that all three are companion pieces, so i’m choosing to talk about them under the umbrella of trilogy. the breakdown will work like this: each mixtape will get its own set of paragraphs and will mostly be discussed in terms of its original presentation, but i’ll allocate a final paragraph or two to touch on the impact of the remastering on trilogy and how each bonus track fits with the rest of the mixtape. cool? cool. let’s dig in.
house of balloons is the magnum opus of the weeknd’s discography, yet even this mixtape threatens to not withstand the test of time. as pitchfork rounded up their top one hundred albums of the decade so far earlier this year, house of balloons landed near the middle of the pack, but the site’s stance towards the mixtape seemed almost apologetic, likening the weeknd to a “beta version of some music bot developed in a lab outside of toronto” in comparison to other artists prominent now. that may very well be true (kiss land seemed to consciously steer away from the definitive gloom of the weeknd), but it shouldn’t detract from the impact house of balloons had when it originally hit.
the weeknd first surfaced in late 2010, posting “what you need,” “the morning,” and “loft music” to youtube anonymously. all would later appear on house of balloons. the initial mystery and anonymity of the weeknd was crucial, particularly because it was indicative of both the creation of house of balloons and the subsequent controversy that followed. the three original tracks posted by the weeknd were produced by a guy named jeremy rose, who details in an interview his relationship with tesfaye and how it went sour. the two stopped collaborating before the songs were posted, but both rose and tesfaye were credited early on by smaller blogs who covered the music. however, when larger outlets picked up on the sound, the anonymous allure was slipped into the weeknd’s persona. after house of balloons dropped in march of 2011, the general public learned of tesfaye’s role as the voice of the weeknd but were led to believe that illangelo and doc mckinney were the producers solely responsible for the haunting aura that permeated house of balloons.
rose’s involvement with the original collection of songs certainly makes him the initial architect of the weeknd’s sound, but not its primary one. it’s possible, and perhaps even probable, that illangelo and doc mckinney began their tenure with tesfaye as faithful replicators of the sound rose had crafted, but eventually they became innovators. the version of “the morning” that appears on house of balloons is radically different than rose’s original, sped-up and re-tooled, and “coming down” is the spookiest offering on the mixtape, with its gusts of white noise and its paralyzing bass synth stabs.
then there’s “house of balloons/glass table girls,” the title track and addendum that so accurately encapsulates both the lyrical and musical pillars of the weeknd. the repurposing of various elements of “happy house” by siouxsie and the banshees – primarily its guitar melody and vocal hook – adds the slightest carefree element, enough to complement tesfaye’s lyrical exoneration of his rampant drug use and poor treatment of women. but the sunniest disposition ever attached to the weeknd quickly disappears as “house of balloons” dissolves into “glass table girls.” tesfaye’s cadence of “bring the 707 out” references both the muted bass-snare hit of a roland tr-707 – ostensibly used to create the track – and the type of glass table used to snort cocaine. and that’s the simple endgame of the weeknd: to get high and have sex with girls. tesfaye broods in a low register about mixing drugs and tells various anecdotes, effectively blurring the line between fiction and a first-person account. that’s what was so initially enticing about the weeknd: a grueling and explicit examination of an r&b lifestyle that was simultaneously sought after.
still, the sped-up beach house samples on “loft music” and “the party & the afterparty” (rose handled production on the front half of that track) were crucial points of cross-pollination that helped to push the weeknd’s sound onto an even larger audience. rose received credit for his work when trilogy was repackaged and released in 2012, although this was probably due to warranted legal complaints on his behalf. the remastered tracks on the house of balloons portion of trilogy received diligent attention, falling more in line with an audio snob’s expectations. low-end pulses resonate more, drum triggers feel appropriately crisp, and tesfaye’s vocal echoes are more apparent and contribute more directly to the desired ambiance. the only glaring omission is on “what you need,” which lacks the aaliyah sample that functions as the original’s calling card.
as is customary of many reissues (trilogy essentially functions as one), a bonus track is tagged at the end of each mixtape. house of balloons received “twenty eight”; the title refers to its numerical placement in the weeknd’s canon, but rap genius also tells me that it could refer to the approximate number of grams in an ounce. i’ll take their word for it. sonically, “twenty eight” is an extreme outlier from the muddy, drug-addled haze of the rest of house of balloons, and doesn’t follow its lyrical pattern, either. instead, “twenty eight” prefaces the sentiments found throughout thursday, where tesfaye weighs his artistic ambitions against primal instincts and aspirations of fame. the timbral flip-flopping between stock acoustic piano and post-dub punches is also an indicator of that dilemma, and slightly foreshadows the direction that kiss land would eventually take.
tesfaye was afforded the luxuries of time and anonymity while crafting and refining house of balloons, but both of those assets disappeared amidst the sudden media fervor and rampant digestion of his mixtape and the weeknd persona in general. he’d promised two more mixtapes by the end of 2011, a tall order for any artist, let alone one working under such sudden, intense scrutiny. the follow-up to house of balloons could have felt rushed or could have been full of throwaways from the first recording sessions; instead, tesfaye and his duo of producers offered up thursday, a haunting continuation that found the weeknd’s persona increasingly defined within the context of his main fixation.
already, tesfaye has succumbed to one of the key pillars of the stereotyped r&b lifestyle, as his philandering is self-referenced indirectly within the first ten minutes of the mixtape. indeed, “lonely star” immediately finds him offering the world to a nameless girl, ostensibly the same one that appeared in the more incoherent settings of house of balloons. but the song’s hazy coda finally provides context, reducing the girl’s identity to the one day of the week tesfaye has relegated her to. “life of the party” qualifies thursday’s place and purpose within the weeknd’s life, but the subsequent title track croons her identity more forcefully into a sense of nothingness, leaving the girl with few human qualities that aren’t sexual.
the turning point of thursday and downfall of the weeknd’s machismo swagger begins in “the zone,” arguably making it the most important track on the mixtape. after taking a backseat to his romantic proclamations, the weeknd’s rampant codeine abuse circles to the forefront again, this time in a more heartbreaking manner than it did throughout house of balloons. drake nearly missed the deadline for his feature on “the zone,” but his early co-sign of the weeknd morphed into an important collaboration and provided a more abstract angle into the drug-fueled illicit sexual activities that had begun to litter this new strain of r&b.
prior to “the zone,” the weeknd adopted a decidedly domineering and almost predatory tone, one he swaps out for cautionary tales and a sense of self-pity in both segments of “the birds.” in a rare instance that straddles the line between social commentary and self-examination, tesfaye realizes the danger his persona poses and advises his object of affection to distance herself from him. the three remaining tracks on thursday constitute yet another comedown, this time from an intense sexual endeavor as opposed to a drug-induced euphoria. interestingly, the final song on the mixtape alludes yet again to cocteau twins, this time borrowing the title of their 1990 album heaven or las vegas instead of a sample.
the production throughout thursday is impeccable once again, with the chores falling almost exclusively on illangelo and doc mckinney. while devoid of the discernible samples that populated house of balloons, thursday still maintains a singular mood that is incredibly emotive, particularly throughout the middle portion of the mixtape. the bonus track that appears at the end of thursday on trilogy is called “valerie,” again more sonically and conceptually similar to the weeknd’s debut album than any of the material on his mixtapes. the song’s inclusion at this point in the progression of trilogy is sensible – it’s a ballad sung to a girl the weeknd has wronged – yet the inclusion of a given name in the title suggests that this is someone entirely different than the thursday girl, rendering her identity a complete mystery.
if thursday embodied in any way the stereotypical sophomore slump of a promising new artist, then echoes of silence provided sufficient redemption. the final installment of the weeknd’s ambitious trilogy of debauchery is unquestionably the most desolate, at times transcending any conventions of r&b to explore more brooding formats like trip hop and post-dubstep. still, it takes a moment for tesfaye to spiral into that world.
echoes of silence opens with “d.d.,” a retooling of michael jackson’s “dirty diana.” bypassing his customary sampling of recognizable songs in favor of a straight cover may seem curious at first, but the song’s lyrical content is consistent with the illicit nature of tesfaye’s project and its selection may be a tip of the hat to the mtv critic who once likened tesfaye to the king of pop. he certainly proves his worth from a vocal standpoint, and illangelo’s atmospheric tendencies collide with militant drums and a surging bass line to make a case for the song’s position as the strongest of the three openers throughout trilogy.
as the haunting french-canadian vocal hook of “montreal” settles in, it becomes clear that echoes of silence is the weeknd’s version of a break-up album. more accurately, it’s an album that finds tesfaye reconciling with a loss while immediately returning to his tendencies of deception and seduction. subtle clues like the recycled lyrics from house of balloons point to the cyclical nature of the weeknd’s thought process, but it’s the overtness of “initiation” and “xo/the host” in particular that help to drive home his incessant, never-ending abuse of oxycontin and women.
in his own deluded way, however, the weeknd does manage to finally adopt some semblance of self-awareness and a set of morals. “next” primarily deals with his rejection of a girl based on a currently fulfilling relationship, although it’s delivered with the arrogant perception that he is desired solely based on his newfound fame and his position as the next prominent face of r&b. perhaps the most acutely self-aware piece on the mixtape is its title track; “echoes of silence” closes out the entire mixtape trilogy, and although it’s delivered under the lyrical guise of yet another one-night stand, a more important metaphor can be extracted from the song’s plaintive mood. instead of a back and forth dialogue between the weeknd and a nameless girl, “echoes of silence” functions more as a confessional from the weeknd to his fans, nearly begging them not to forget him as he steps away from his proliferate lifestyle in order to focus on his next project. tesfaye finally bridges the gap between fiction and feelings, underscoring that what once may have been a fantasy has turned into a less glamorous reality.
echoes of silence is, without question, the most intimate of the weeknd’s three mixtapes, largely due to the small amount of personnel responsible for its creation. aside from a clams casino co-production credit and juicy j’s spoken word outro on “same old song,” echoes of silence was the byproduct of a close collaboration between tesfaye and illangelo. while still taking the project’s downtempo nature to entirely new levels on “montreal” and “echoes of silence,” illangelo had the foresight to incorporate gritty, angular distorted guitar lines into the mixtape’s overall aesthetic, perhaps a nod to the stadium-rock aura the weeknd’s live show had begun to take on. this sensibility stretches into “till dawn (here comes the sun),” the final of the three bonus tracks on trilogy. it’s the most consistent of the three, finally indicative of both the sonic and lyrical qualities of the mixtape it’s meant to accompany (although there’s a case to be made that the girl is using the weeknd, not the other way around).
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so, what does this all mean? nearly four years ago, a complete unknown came out of the woodwork and began the daunting task of reshaping the aesthetic of r&b, largely through the internet and by word of mouth, albeit very powerful mouths. 2007 is often cited as the year that kanye west changed the course of rap music, steering it away from the gangster lifestyle and towards one of eclecticism and vulnerability; while i hesitate to (and probably will never) put the weeknd on the same artistic level as kanye, 2011 seemed to function similarly, with how to dress well and frank ocean helping to craft modern r&b into an artistic niche as revered by critics as it is by teenagers on tumblr.
however, this new direction deviates from kanye’s rebranding from rap in the sense that it does not appear to be sustainable, at least not in its present trajectory. it’s been more than two years since channel orange, but that album already found frank ocean pushing past r&b confines and into psychedelia, while tom krell began unabashedly experimenting with pop conventions on his latest effort as how to dress well. of the big three, the weeknd is the only one who chose to stick almost exclusively with the brooding formula that had garnered him so much acclaim and attention, ultimately resulting in the mixed bag that was kiss land.
part of the lackluster appeal of kiss land can be attributed to tesfaye’s poor in-house retention skills. the casual discarding of jeremy rose perhaps should have been a red flag to doc mckinney and illangelo, both of whom chose to work on creating the weeknd anyways. mckinney noticeably disappeared from the project after thursday, leaving illangelo behind to craft echoes of silence by himself. but illangelo proved himself to be more than capable, producing track after track uninformed and unassisted by anyone else that convincingly belonged to the weeknd’s aesthetic. despite his long tenure and indispensable role in creating one of pop music’s most enigmatic figures in recent history, illangelo contributed nothing to kiss land. while details on the split are beyond scarce, it’s become clear that tesfaye’s commitment issues move past the one-night stands in his music and extend to those that have helped shape his professional career.
as he prepped for a handful of cross-country tour dates, the weeknd released “king of the fall,” a standalone single that was his strongest piece of work since trilogy. it’s indicative of his fame-induced bravado and continued abuse of nearly every substance he can get his hands on, but further on tesfaye begins to make amends and attempts to rebrand himself. most importantly, he alludes to working with doc mckinney once again, who is to quincy jones as the weeknd is to a dark-skinned michael jackson. the producers that worked on kiss land wasted their time trying to replicate an aura that had come almost naturally to mckinney and illangelo, and had to do so simply because tesfaye had fallen out with two of the most important instruments of his success. if this collaboration does indeed come to fruition, it not only shows the personal and professional maturation of tesfaye but the possibility that his artistic integrity may still be salvageable.
alternative r&b, or pbr&b as it’s become known sardonically in some circles, has already become a parody of itself. countless artists with a halfway decent croon and a computer with fruity loops try to add their brooding two cents to a stagnant conversation, dumbing down and threatening to kill what was once a promising offshoot. kiss land may have been the biggest perpetrator in this decline, but the weeknd still holds a unique position to save face. by reconnecting with his original collaborators, time won’t be wasted trying to replicate an outdated sound. instead, a delayed evolution of the weeknd’s sound may very well occur, and the promising follow-up to trilogy that was initially expected might finally be delivered. maybe.