Ladies and gentleman, the post-modern R&B artist has arrived and, no, it’s not Drake. Slapping the soul scene of exaggerating crooners and identity-challenged dubsteppers across the face from some basement in Toronto comes The Weeknd, a one-man smooth machine that is equal times precious as it is troubled and disparaging. Every moment of its free debut, House of Balloons is packed with gorgeous melodies, but you will not have to go very far to run right into the group’s main man, Abel Tesfaye’s massive id, pulsing at you and erupting every so often to make you uncomfortable as you dance your ass off (and do… other things). Presenting the unrated Thank Me Later, the album one lying ho away from an all-out nervous breakdown.
That’s House of Balloons in a nutshell. If you’re easily offended, then pay no mind to the stuff you heard about sampling two Beach House songs; this shit is bleak. Take “The Party and The After Party” for example. The song features a sample of Beach House’s “Master of None”, jingling beautifully under Tesfaye’s nimble come-ons. His voice is like that of The-Dream’s, expressive and versatile. “Louis V bag / tats on your arms / High heel shoes / make you six feet tall,” he sings in the song’s chorus, genuinely admiring his female muse as he steps back to allow Victoria Legrand’s faint voice to take center stage to sing, “You always come to the party.”
Sounds cute, right? Well the song’s called “The Party and The After Party” for a reason. Within two iterations of the song’s chorus, that Beach House sample drops out of the mix, as if to disrupt the façade so Tesfaye’s true self can show. It isn’t long into the track’s second half before he begins a verse with, “I got a new girl call her Rudolf / She’ll probably OD before I show her to mama,” his voice not changing at all amidst the song’s sensual production. It’s a double-take kind of moment, one you never expect to be so frank, even this far into the album. But it gets worse. In the next line he sings, “All these girls try to tell me she got no love / But all these girls never ever got a blowjob,” and, in the next line, he outright threatens the girl he’s clearly having sex with, singing “Ringtone on silent / And if she stop then I might get violent.” It’s a pretty deadly stanza, shamelessly callous in its brutal execution.
I don’t think lines like these are actually meant by Tesfaye, though. House of Balloons comes off less to me as the coke-fueled trifles of an actual sadist and more of the concentrated release of some serious sexual frustration into the chauvinism that never was. Unlike Drake’s Thank Me Later, an album that’s impetus was the trouble with fame, House of Balloons is aggravated with never getting to that drug-addled mainland. And, because of this, the album is a lot more vitriolic and misogynistic. One of its most memorable lines is in “Loft Music”, when Tesfaye deadpans this gem of raw profanity: “Eddie Murphy shit / Yeah we trade places/ Rehearse last of them / Then we fuck faces.”
But I don’t really have a problem with quoting these lines, because all over House of Balloons, we can clearly see that Tesfaye suffers from some serious insecurity issues. The guy sums up his hollow relationship with the girls he may or may not be shtupping better than a thousand Thank Me Laters in that infamous stanza in “The Party and the After Party” (“They don’t want my love / They just want my potential.”), encapsulating some deeply corrupted self-criticism. Tesfaye rejects a girl’s frailty in favor of his own on the chorus of “Wicked Games” (“Get me off of this / I need confidence in myself”) and chalks up the copious amounts of play he gets on the record to money as the motive in the chorus of “The Morning”. There’s not much analysis needed in a line like “Bring the drugs baby, I can bring my pain,” and that’s the key to the fucked up beauty of House of Balloons: It is probably the most oblique case study ever self-released.
If it weren’t so contradictory, House of Balloons would be the sexiest album released in fifteen years. Regardless of his gender politics, Tesfaye knows his way around a baby-making beat, and even writes one of the year’s biggest club bangers in the title track. The album is convoluted and can be engulfing if listened to in just the right context. Troubled Casanovas will be fucking to it for years, but there will be plenty of others that will just sit back in awe of its beautiful disaster unfolding. I’m not saying it’s better or worse to be in either of those camps or even that they’re mutually exclusive. I’m just saying you should listen to House of Balloons to get an idea of which one you’re in.