There was a time when a young, aspiring group of musicians would follow a grueling roadmap to success fraught with uncertainty, discomfort, and rejection. Bands recorded songs on cheap home-recording technology, sent hissing demo tapes to labels, toured relentlessly, and hoped that a talent scout would appear at that One Great Show and lavish them with dollar signs and diamonds. In the 21st century, however, this shop-worn plan has spiraled into irrelevance. Now, an artist builds buzz through internet-based word of mouth, buzz that is based on perhaps one song or perhaps no songs at all. The groundswell surrounding the mystery builds to a fever pitch until, finally, the public is exposed to the artists’ work. Intrigue and anticipation drive fame; familiarity breeds contempt. In the modern music world, it is better to be unknown than to be known.
The latest evidence of this increasingly common phenomenon is Canada’s The Weeknd (note the lack of final “e;” pronounce as “weekend” or “weakened” at your discretion), an emerging R&B act whose numbers, names, and genders remain shrouded. Indeed, little can be said about these R&B upstarts other than a) they have some association with Drake, b) they are all over the web-based music press this week, and c) they recently released House Of Balloons, a free mixtape which is likely to rank among 2011’s albums of the year. With its bottomless soul and intoxicating aura, it is a record that is best described as brilliant, disturbing, and not safe for work.
House Of Balloons opens with “High For This,” a tune that comes slithering out of your speakers with the claim “You don’t know what’s in store/but you know what you’re here for” before tearing down your defenses with pounding drums and blanketing reverb. The song leads into “What You Need,” a stripped-down, heavy-breathing slow jam that subsequently makes way for “House of Balloons – Glass Table Girls,” one of the most exciting tracks of the year to date. The seven-minute epic opens with the manic urgency of pianos, airhorn-like screeches, and a voice stretched to its breaking point, before breaking down at the three-and-a-half minute mark to a bizarre cross between rap and sprechstimme over a dirty Wu-Tang-style beat.
The Weeknd – “House of Balloons – Glass Table Girls”
The rest of the record follows suit, feeling like the demented product of some spaced out criminal underworld. From the Portishead-meets-R. Kelly creep of “Wicked Games” to the sinister guitar line underlying “Coming Down,” each song revels in a dark and illicit hedonism that simultaneously shames and titillates the listener. These songs, however, are just prelude to the album’s penultimate track “Loft Music,” a song so unsafe it should come with a child-proof cap, so dirty that you’ll feel guilty the next time you see your wife.
The Weeknd – “Loft Music”
It’s worth noting that nothing the group does on House Of Balloons is particularly novel. The cyberbuzz/self-release route has been mastered by artists like Odd Future and Jay Electronica; the lo-fi reinvention of 90s R&B has been perfected by James Blake and How To Dress Well; and the shroud-of-secrecy approach was anticipated by dubstep auteur Burial. But, for the brilliant unification of all of the above, The Weeknd stand alone. Of course, like their next-generation peers, it remains to be seen if their music will stand the test of time or whether it will be dragged unceremoniously into the Recycle Bin of History. But for now, grab the tape for free, dial up the bass, and indulge yourself in some truly wicked music.
The Weeknd – “Wicked Games”