I apologise in advance for inevitable nomenclature problems encountered over the next few paragraphs. Things get difficult when you’re dealing with a plural-sounding artist name represented by a singular-sounding artist. While The Weeknd (chiefly Toronto-based Abel Tesfaye among a broader multimedia collective named XO) have/has been around since late 2010 in one form or another, it took until March 21 this year and the release of ‘House of Balloons’, the first album released under the moniker, for the name to really launch into the popular stratosphere. Once you hear ‘The Morning’, you’ll be wondering just how Tesfaye and the two producers who worked on the album – fellow Canadians Doc McKinney and Illangelo – kept things under wraps so long. Downcast in the same manner as The xx, hyper-sexualised in the same manner as Childish Gambino and boasting the pipes of D’Angelo, The Weeknd seemed primed to blow up as soon as t(he)y dropped anything. Sex-money-drugs-lust-bed-crunk fuel ready to explode.
Turns out all it took was a couple of matches from Drake after he tweeted a few lyrics after apparently co-signing the act and later linked to The Weeknd on his own website. Never underestimate star power. As a result, since March, ‘House of Balloons’ has scored an 89 rating from Metacritic (ie. universal acclaim) and has drawn plaudits from all corners of the biz. And it’s not hard to see why. In a way that many artists can’t, The Weeknd manages to meld genres, cruising languorously between RnB and dub, soul and some distinctly hip-hop lyrics. While those lyrics might grate with less forward listeners (as if such people even exist any more), the production is on point throughout, bolstered by Tesfaye’s self-confidence in the driver’s seat. It takes balls to sing in a meaningful way about sex in an age in which it permeates through the entire industry, often in a throw-away fashion, profundity forfeited and prostituted for sales. But The Weeknd manages it on ‘The Morning’ and manages it quite well.
‘The Morning’ is pretty much the aural equivalent of an orgasm in the bedroom of your first love with the lights turned down, the heat turned up and Luther Vandross on vinyl. All that said, it’s not necessarily easy listening. That’s what I find so arresting about The Weeknd. Where RnB (particularly bad RnB) can often pass for low-key muzak, The Weeknd has steered far from elevator territory with ‘The Morning’ that it’s not even in the building anymore. This is challenging, it demands to be listened to. Yes, it’s dirty and twisted and louche and sexy but at the same time, something lifts it out of the smut basket and puts it firmly on top of the ‘good music’ pile. That something is difficult to put a finger on but it certainly has something to do with Tesfaye’s earnestness, something to do with near-flawless, stripped-back production and something to do with just that; its ambiguous appeal. ‘House of Balloons’ is the first in a three-part trilogy of albums with the next two albums due out in winter and spring (Aus) respectively. You’ve been warned. Watch this space.
The Weeknd – The Morning