Contemporary R&B is not generally aspiring to the arcane. For decades, it has identified with the emotional, vulnerable, political — the stuff of club quavering and lovemaking. It rarely dips its toes into obscure territory, for a genre so vast and encompassing. There have certainly been dalliances with the weird — R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, while self-aware, handily takes that cake — and outre, as with Georgia Anne Muldrow’s stuttering, feminist psychedelia, or D’Angelo at his most pitch-shifted and layered. But for the most part, populist communication is at the top of the value set.
House of Balloons, the new mixtape by The Weeknd (aka Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye), is slouching towards an altered zone, so to speak. A concept album with a traditionally R. Kelly structure — song titles and emotional resonance loosely refer to the show, the party, the afterparty, the hotel lobby — the vocals would be straight pop if they weren’t sausaged in burbly, haunted beats that sway and drag with an ominousness that dissociates from the sext. The melodies are so submerged in cavernous beats and effects that it comes off like a droll retort to auto-tune. Tesfaye sounds like Lloyd in a dystopia, but the samples suggest Beach House and Siouxie Sioux fandom, too — though, above all, it sounds like his biggest influence is oxycontin, half-lidded come-ons light with the ache of feeling no pain. One of the best, most Lynchian tracks nestles the chorus, I always want you when I’m coming down, between samples of a paranoid, speedy whisper and a cell phone. You can almost hear Laura Palmer lurking around the corner — it’s borderline gothic and certainly perhaps cognizant of the current demand for heavy submersibles in off-kilter music, drag-house and the like. Since Balloons was unleashed on Sunday it’s been posted on sites as diverse as the indie scion Pitchfork and hip-hop stalwart 2DopeBoyz. But The Weeknd’s also likely headed for bigger leagues; those blogs originally copped it off the Twitter of none other than Drake, whose producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib may or may not have something to do with the project. (In true Twin Peaks style, Tesfaye is purposefully cryptic about his identity and the nature of the music. So maybe The Weeknd is Bob?) While Drake himself dabbles in longing when he’s not crooning about his swag, whether by success or general nice-guy demeanor, he could never sound quite as convincingly on the verge of a delicate breakdown as this dude. The music is almost nihilistic in its total committal to feeling good. Like The Weeknd’s appeals for love, sex, drugs, are simply distractions before the end of the world.
The Weeknd’s most obvious predecessor is The-Dream — though the pop charts have only been blessed by the gauzy vocals and gossamer love of that R&B superlover for a few years, House of Balloons is clearly shellacked in his sensibilities, full of bleary-eyed rubdowns with big hook aspirations. At times, it sounds as though the vocals were recorded from behind a waterfall — you can almost picture Tesfaye getting earnest on a tropical island, offering up a conch as a symbol of his love. But an antecedent more relevant to the Weeknd’s particular strain of DNA is Steve ‘Static’ Major, the singer/songwriter/producer who wrote the eeriest tracks in Aaliyah’s catalog and sang in the underrated R&B trio Playa, before he passed away three years ago on a Louisville operating table. Though minor keys tend to sound sadder and more distant, Static Major’s mastery of them transcended simple emotion into opaque obscurity. He made the singer sound untouchable and mysterious through pure melodies and modulation; it was a type of magic, really. The harmonies on Playa’s “Cheers 2 U,” for instance, remain some of the ghostliest devotionals in contemporary soul. (It also didn’t hurt that his writing cohort Timbaland was at his peak.)
On some level, The Weeknd recognize this. On the single ‘What You Need,’ there’s a sample of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” which Static Major wrote — though it could also be more of an homage to Zomby, the dance producer who flipped Baby Girl’s ‘float’ lyric into a certified jungle banger a couple of years ago. The Weeknd’s clearly beholden to dubstep, at least as it reaches critical mass — several tracks glom onto that genre’s telling low-end, letting it be the innovation for warbles and that would, on a beat by Darkchild or Stargate, sound fairly standard.
Incidentally, I first listened to House of Balloons on headphones, sitting on a bench sandwiched between a gun range and a pawnshop on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. That was weird. It was also the most plaintive moment of cognitive dissonance in a week full of it, soaking in the quiet weirdness of purple serenades from Canadians against a backdrop of two American symbols writ large. You’ve likely read loads of SXSW reportage by now, and I can confirm two universal truths about the music festival: 1. after it’s over you will never want to be around drunk people again in your life, and 2. every single one of those drunk people is packing in to see a handful of acts with the most buzz. This year, that included my once-beloved James Blake — whose several appearances I skipped with the admittedly churlish notion that I was not trying to see a piano recital — and Odd Future, the teen skate-rap collective whose homicidal/suicidal/rape-invoking lyrics are complicated by infectous, potty-mouthed joie de vivre. I was pleasantly surprised by Mellowhype, the weeded Odd Future sub-group whose Blackenedwhite LP was underwhelming — even though their music doesn’t smack with the same velocity as that of their cohort Tyler, the Creator, there’s no denying the crackle of their show energy. (Though their practice of rapping live over their own vocal tracks still discombobulates, even if it is to counteract Tyler’s asthma-related breath control issues.) And if you’re wondering why so many people at a historically rock festival went so loco over a shock-rap group, or even if you’re not, watch this crazy footage of Odd Future performing “French” at the Thrasher Magazine/Santos Party House show. The dude going Man on Wire is Hodgy Beats, and he lived to hit his next verse. So though their lyrics contribute another spoke to the rape culture, it’s a task to somehow reconcile your cerebral reservations with your visceral enjoyment. Honorable Brooklynite shout outs: Twin Shadow (always), Friends, AC & Dell (the new rap leg of NYC’s Trouble & Bass crew), and uh, Jamie xx, who DJ’d so many times it sorta felt like he lived in the neighborhood. Didn’t hear The Weeknd in any of Jamie’s sets, but it’s surely in the crates – he made beats for Drake’s next album, and pop gets a little more porous.