House of Balloons Mixtape
By Dom Sinacola | 8 April 2011
The Weeknd were introduced to me in one sticky, cataclysmic phrase: post-Drake. And what happens after Drake has been officially thanked? The Weeknd imagine: a dull, thudding migraine of over-stimulation; Alizé without Cocoa Puffs for breakfast; “motherfucking” as punctuation; an unforgiving mélange of barely remembered sunlight where the hangover is the same as the bender’s peak, and where people are fucking, like, everywhere. On your dead parent’s bed; on the counter, where you prepare your food; right next to the cat’s litter box. A quilt of writhing, angry bodies softens your expensive marble floor. You figure that makes it easy to clean, but you’ve never had to clean up after yourself anyway, so you feel guilty for a moment. Uncomfortable, on the cusp of self-awareness, you look down or behind or up, sure whatever it is you’re fucking isn’t feeling that way, so away you thrust, immeasurably forever alone.
House of Balloons, the Weeknd’s debut mixtape—which Calum Marsh recently and correctly described as comprised wholly of “immaculately crafted slow-jams”—is an account of that nothing much that accompanies such heedless self-loathing: grindin’, ridin’, bumpin’, seethin’, lots and lots of coke. It’s R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” ambient-Bieber-ized, licentiousness mapped in geologic eras. Not much biographical info exists on the Weeknd; Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye is most prominently attached, his croon saddled on top of the endless porcelain production of Doc McKinney and Illangelo. But past that, they seem hellbent on obscurity, as if credibility exists solely in exclusivity, as if hedonism is a curse best carried by self-appointed Raskolnikovs setting the standard for the rest of us to avoid, snorting all that yayo so the rest of us don’t have to.
And despite the Weeknd’s best efforts, their star is quickly rising. Chastened by Drake and lit without remorse by the same critics that would probably deride them were they swole with more famous aims, they are already beset by expectations impossible to satisfy. This is no surprise: House of Balloons is impossible to dislike. It two-finger presses on so many cultural g-spots it’s inescapable, rife with melody and rich with sonic vistas, applicable to all mediums, from fur-lined headphones to tinny car speakers. “The Morning” is insanely catchy, as is “Wicked Games”; “High For This” perfectly suppresses its come-ons enough to earn its indulgent climax, and then “What You Want” smoothly exploits the intoxication from its predecessor. “The Party & the After Party” does little more than improvise vocal runs over a Beach House sample, but what’s to keep you from skipping to that track anyway, reveling in all that familiarity? What’s to keep Tesfaye from confessing to someone that he wants her only when he’s “coming down?” Shame? There is no room in this House of Balloons for moral quibbling; there is only ecstasy (“Happy House”) and its cost (“Glass Table Girls”), held in symmetry as the Heaven and Hell of this music industry the Weeknd’s so easily infiltrated.
House of Balloons is an album suspended in contradiction—a collection of sex jams tired of sex, or a paean to coke addled irretrievably by the same. It lacks dynamism because it has to; the Weeknd know nothing else, just that in every solid groove lurks the metronomic pulse of something waiting to die. R&B only in essence, House of Balloons reduces all genre touchstones to suggestions, so beholden to everything as it is, like that slightly menacing room from the “Virtual Insanity” video free-floating all white-washed Borg cube through the blank post-Drake cosmos. RIYL: sound.
So it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on with this. This—this ersatz debut and first mixtape; this effortlessly sure, cohesive collection of songs charged with mystery, hormones, and self-loathing; this pretty young thing equal parts Julianna Barwick and Jodeci. It’s been argued this is R&B, and it’s been argued it’s not. It’s been called “PBR&B” and “PBR&B” has been called racist. It’s totally devoid of rap. It bears the same adherence to drug-use as Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y do, synthesizing intoxication into an intoxicating, synth-heavy aesthetic, but it doesn’t condone its actions, only confesses them. It can be as cavernous, as cathedral as Talk Talk, as confessionally blunt as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, as spare and unyielding as D’Angelo, as self-consciously tailored as the xx. It talks to you with its tongue in your ear. As you giggle, it tells you, right from the first, how to enjoy it. It doesn’t tell you the right way to enjoy it, just the way you wanted to hear. The easiest way. You, it says, will wanna be high for this.