The Weeknd is arriving at exactly the right time. The larger field of R&B has been taking stock of itself and even with artists such as Janelle Monae, How To Dress Well, and a slew of newcomers straddling the line between pop and dubstep (SBTRKT, Jamie Woon, Katy B) as evidence of the sound being approached from a myriad of angles there’s been an opening for an artist with a voice existing in a contemporary R&B space while simultaneously transcending it. Adding up the pros Thursday has riding behind it – Abel Tesfaye’s unmatched vocal ability, the eclectic sample choices, its timeliness, the resulting implications of “free” and “mixtape,” and the noteworthy fact that it’s the second in a promised trilogy of 2011 mixtapes in just about five months – paints The Weeknd as a true masthead (if not savior) for any sort of modern R&B renaissance.
On the surface Abel Tesfaye could be pinned as another sex and drug glorifying deviant, willfully brandishing his unmindful late-night obsessions. Much has been said regarding the graphic details the young artist spilled across the tracks on House of Balloons, The Weeknd’s debut mixtape, which found its costing-nothing way online in March. But where he differs from, say, fellow Toronto-native Drake (who stops by for a rapped verse on “The Zone”) or The-Dream is Tesfaye’s willingness to show rather than just tell. There’s a moral ambiguity wavering between willful indulgence and mid-morning regret on Tesfaye’s lips. Rather than factor in the ego-aggrandizing social stats, which, more often than not, seems to be the goal of his aforementioned piers, Tesfaye is willing to portray a vulnerable personality that exists between states of love and lust, indulgence and addiction, tenderness and abuse, empathy and objectification, art school and frat house. Thursday only furthers the pathways that blur these lines.
I’m going to be frank however, Thursday is not as good as House of Balloons. The Weeknd set the bar incredibly high. Not as much here quite consistently matches the melodic transcendence of Balloons‘ highlights, and that Thurday manages to stand on its own at all is an achievement in itself. Tesfaye is wise not to simply chase the nocturnal after-party bedtime come-down aesthetics outlined on his previous outing. While much of the lyrical content concerns the same hedonistic laments as its predecessor, Thursday’s production has an overall more active, and oftentimes abrasive, propensity, favoring guitars (both acoustic and electric) and organic flavorings over between-the-sheets synthesizers and Beach House samples. It’s less a shift in sound than it is a more fleshed-out theme.
In a lot of ways Thursday picks up literally where House Of Balloons left off with the guitar-driven closer, “The Knowning.” “Lonely Star” and “Life of the Party” are both built out of sawtooth synths and anthemic riff bombast. The latter’s chorus even has a doomy descending chord progression accompanying a foreboding dubby quarter note strum. “Thursday” and “The Zone” both cut most of the mid-range away and let Tesfaye’s glassy falsetto waver in isolation. “The Birds Part 1” lets silvery feedback drone up its middle while “Part 2” returns to half-lidded with a languid tremolo melody. “Rolling Stone” strips things down to a minimum of percussion and a solitary fingerpicked guitar while Tesfay seeps into a widened expanse. “Gone” repeats the long-form slow-jam outline of “The Party & The After Party,” this time building into the track instead of deconstructing it. “Heaven or Las Vegas” closes things out with leering starlit dub.
Thursday thankfully reasserts the elements of The Weeknd that made House Of Balloons so immediately compelling. Despite Drake’s appearance things remain focused on Tesfay’s isolated locked-up stream of consciousness. The atmosphere is still tied to sweaty midnights. And the production handled once again by Doc McKinney and Illangelo as it was on Balloons is still impeccable and rooted in genre-contextualization – though it does tread some new ground in that regard. It’s also still intricate as all hell. Little details like the decaying piano flourishes in the chorus of “The Zone” or the worms of feedback on “Thursday” or the muffled synthesized backing vocals on “Gone” or the crackling and hissing textures that continue to tie the moniker to post-dubstep all create a depth that warrant repeated inspection and a dynamic of anti-polish that even further adds to the case for The Weeknd’s dominance.
Thursday continues a linear narrative that House of Balloons started and its far from an afterthought or epilogue. For those who’ve played Balloons to death in the five month interim – it gives striking dimension to The Weeknd that wasn’t previously there. It’s too soon to come to any conclusions as October or November apparently holds a third chapter, but for now we know The Weeknd is absolutely a force to contend with.