The Weeknd – House of Balloons: R&B chic horror

I’ve been listening to this chilling album for a few days now – I was introduced to it on Monday, downloded my free ‘mixtape’ Monday night. At that stage there were one hundred thousand or so hits on the song on You Tube and my boyfriend was saying “you’ve got to hear this!  Everyone is talking about it.”

It’s now Thursday morning and the you tube hits on the songs are in the millions. I’ve never seen anything spread this fast – even on twitter – although part of the rise in fame for The Weeknd is Drake’s Twitter post.  I’m not a huge fan of R&B so I never imagined I’d do a review on an album like this one, but I guess everything is going to change after music like this.

First some facts. the name of this artist is WEEKND, as in ‘weak-end’ and then ‘weakened’. The album is available for free download on the website – so that has its own fascination even though it is not exactly a new phenomena these days. the cover art Is its own brand of stylised creepy, The close and clingy connection to Drake (a hip hop, pop, R&B performer) and the slamming rise to massive fame on the net (Weeknd has now been commissioned for a Florence and the Machine remix and he will appear on the Lady Gaga remix coming out in November) and in the pop mainstream have all combined to the buzz. But its the music that has sustained and carried the buzz.

Weeknd is one kid (and two producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo). He’s twenty-one, lives in Toronto Canada,  is of Ethiopian descent and comes from an Amish/Muslim background (a blog post in itself I didn’t know there were Amish / Muslims – excuse my ignorance if this is painfully obvious) according to the Wiki. he started studying Animal Husbandry at college till he worked out he was good at music (!) and has never been on a plane. His name is Abel Tesfaye, and he really does look like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

And here’s the rub. As soon as I started playing this music (before I knew anything about the lyrics) I turned to my boyfriend and said “this music scares me.” He replied with “I know. It scares me too. listen some more than read the lyrics.”  The albums command of mood is the initial terrifying thing about this. I am not a big R&B fan, as I stated, so I’m not entirely comfortable with the genre, so I can’t claim any prior knowledge to back up the instant mood recognition.  And I certainly didn’t focus on lyric with my first listening. (while I was working)

I did know this was usual for R & B. The initial track involving techno scrape  sounded different from other R & B. At first I thought it was just a well made album with some interesting twists. But then the mood takes over. By the first chorus in High For This the churning in my belly was undeniable. Something was terribly wrong with the music. Yes the vocals have that beautiful lilting R&B feel, but the sourcing is all wrong. That is to say, we all know R&B. It’s that croony style of music that always involves lots of one-night-stand style uninspired sex and soft drug taking. Weeknd takes that established style and imposes a darkness. These songs are filled with self loathing. High for this is a song about a man pushing hard drugs onto a girl because she’ll want to be high for what he is going to do to her.

These are unhealthy young people. They are young because no older person would let themselves be manipulated in this way, but Weeknd takes us right to that moment. The moment when she is sitting on the bed, scared out of her mind, desperately wanting to be cool, when he reassures her that he is right here, holding her hand. talks her out of using a condom, and tells her she doesn’t know what’s in store, but don’t be scared.  Dont worry, I feel it too. Just take the glass. Even though you don’t usually take drugs.  trust me, you’re gonna wanna be high for this.

House of Balloons / Glass table Girls  re-purposes Siouxsie and the Banshees Happy house – definitely not an R&B track, but a track with that same nervous edge where lyric combines with an always-already-listening imposition of style.

It’s the combination of  R&B crooning ‘harmless’ sweet combined with this desperate self-hatred imposed on others that gives this album the chilling desperate power it delivers. My revulsion initially manifest as anger. That familiar female defensiveness so derided in our culture these days, but that is actually an awakened self-protection mechanism. This is a deeply destructive predatory male deliberately attacking females in the way few women are able to legally defend themselves against. the women are young, weak and naive. But what will happen to them will destroy them for years, if not completely change the direction of their life.

The self-hatred imposed on women in this song is staggering. A song about drug taking and swinging and the preparatory speech about not being offended when he wont take your calls. If you’ve got a problem, come find us, we can talk about it. What is interesting here is the prepared apologies. That is what makes this an entire album of self-loathing. He keeps apologising for her pain, and trying to fix it with drugs and sex.  This gives the implication of a wild ride, hedonism dragging this man (boy really – he’s twenty) into a downward spiral and his desperate clinging at pure women on the way down his self-styled drain. Frontier Psychiatrist’s L.V. Lopez claimed this song  is “so unsafe it should come with a child-proof cap, so dirty that you’ll feel guilty the next time you see your wife.” (now there’s a man with a Madonna / Whore complex!)

Which does bring me to an interesting point. How do women approach this album? As a woman who is attracted to music and inspired by freshness and genre games, I want to enjoy and thrill to this album like anyone else does. But there is a stark boundary imposed on the listener that requires gender recognition. For me, this is a problem with the entire album. It cleverly uses the R&B motiff and turns it on its head to reveal a kind of subterranean fear at the heart of all those croony R&B songs (remember this is what’s REALLY going on at all those parties playing those songs of love) but just as it relies on our pre-established notions of R&B, it also uses (in a very pedestrian way) the aggression played out between the sexes. There is NOTHING fresh here. Nothing new. In fact, it is so antiquated that it even implies a kind of primal reaching that culturally we know to be debunked.  The youth and naivete of the songwriter comes into play for me here.  In order to invoke our terror he reaches into boring school boy politics. The female listener is treated exactly the same way as the females in the songs, and this is a huge shame and a big problem for the album.

For me, this prevents this album from being truly great. When I have to work to subvert myself that hard, then this is not an album covering new territory. It sounds like a white middle-class hygiene manual handed out in girls schools in the 1950’s.  There have been many questions raised in reviews about whether this album is ‘real’ or just an overactive imagination, and I would suggest the banality of the gender play is a strong indicator this is imagination at work. Reality isn’t like this. Its morality playing with your mind here, not reality. This is where that Amish / Muslim influence comes to the fore.

Having said that, I DO think this is an album that is worth adding to any fine music collection. While the above prevents it from greatness for me, what it does to R&B is thrilling and I love genre-bending albums. Another claim that must be made for this album is its ability to cross over into alternate streams of music. The music itself is quite experimental. It’s the vocals that keep this a strictly R&B album. Because of this, and influences such as Beach Hause and Siouxsie and the Banshees (and the fact that it’s free and therefore easily accessed) it is making it into top lists that are usually at odds with one another like Indie and pop. Reviews for this album have appeared in Pitchfork and The Guardian – literally everyone is talking about it. It gets kudos from me for that – although having an Indie background myself I should add ‘Indie’ is happier to sell out than its name suggests.

So, tell me you love me, only for tonight, only for tonight. Even though you don’t love me, just tell me you love me. Bring your love baby I could bring my shame. Bring the drugs baby, I could bring the pain – and enjoy this very clever, very fine, new album.

Download available here. 

Read my review of Thursday here.

I’ve recently reviewed Echoes of Silence, the third download in the series this year. Read that review here.