A startling debut from a young Canadian RnB artist with huge potential.
Mike Diver 2011-07-14
The Weeknd is 21-year-old Toronto resident Abel Tesfaye. House of Balloons is his debut album, distributed freely online, and it’s quite unlike any other RnB collection to have emerged in 2011. Thanks to a Twitter leg-up from fellow Toronto artist Drake, Tesfaye has seen his underground tracks edge towards the mainstream, and earlier this month House of Balloons made the shortlist for the Polaris Prize, Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury. Come 19 September Tesfaye could be both $30,000 better off – that’s the prize money on offer – and in a position to genuinely vie for album-of-2011 top spots.
The foundation stones have certainly been laid. At the end of June, House of Balloons featured on numerous best-of-2011-so-far lists – number nine at Stereogum, number one at Complex; a spot on Spin’s (unranked) list of the best 25 – and was the highest-rated album of the period according to Metacritic, ahead of PJ Harvey and Bon Iver. The stage is set, then, for this to really impress come December’s shuffle of the past-12-months pack. Only, Tesfaye isn’t limiting himself to just this release – due in the summer and autumn respectively are Thursday and Echoes of Silence, wholly new collections. It’s entirely feasible, based on the quality of House of Balloons, that this single artist could have three entries in the upper reaches of many top albums lists.
And, should said brace match this recording’s mix of bruised confessionals and heart-squeezed yearning, set to elegant production and some choice sampling (Tesfaye lifts from Beach House, twice, and Siouxsie and the Banshees for his fantastic title-track), such domination will be deserved. From the opener onwards, House of Balloons impresses immensely with its compositional restraint – imagine The xx if they’d further pursued their natural RnB leanings – and Tesfaye’s acrobatic vocals. He overstretches himself on occasions, but never to such an extent that songs don’t linger long after they’ve faded to a resigned silence. High for This finds our protagonist promising that a relationship is built to last – but there’s doubt in his voice. This uncertainty and open vulnerability runs the set’s length, even when he’s claiming "he’s what you want, (but) I’m what you need" on the very next cut. Later, he’s torn to shreds on Wicked Games: "I need confidence in myself," he says, before desperately pleading for a partner to tell him she loves him, "Only for tonight… even though you don’t love me". Come Loft Music he can’t stand to look ahead – "I’m living for the present, and the future don’t exist" – and like the similarly aged Tyler, the Creator, whose controversial-in-some-corners raps are merely a means of escape from what have become everyday pressures, he’s caught in a moment that might be too much for one so young.
This lyrical tone isn’t so far away from Drake’s short-on-stereotypical-braggadocio Thank Me Later – one of the best albums of 2010 – and in a production sense House of Balloons recalls both The-Dream, albeit stripped of his swagger, and Frank Ocean, whose freely distributed nostalgia, ULTRA release of February 2011 will soon be repackaged in the UK via Mercury. Ocean, an Odd Future affiliate, was among the contributors to Beyoncé’s recently released album 4 and has worked with Kanye West and Jay-Z, and both Drake and The-Dream are megastars in their field. There’s every chance that Tesfaye will follow them into superstardom, and he exhibits enough originality, sparkle and soul across these nine tracks to suggest he could one day surpass their successes – perhaps sometime around December.