By Calum Marsh | 15 September 2011
If the Weeknd’s coke-chic shtick is pure fantasy, some affected paean to a lifestyle Abel Tesfaye’s maybe dabbled in but wouldn’t die for, it’s certainly a fully realized one. Which is precisely what’s most appealing about the project, beyond, of course, the simpler pleasures afforded by Don McKinney and Illangelo’s consistently immaculate production: through his debut mixtape House of Balloons (2011) as well as its new, identically excellent companion piece, Thursday, Tesfaye offers us a document of a lifestyle—of what feels like a world, really—as detailed and lived-in as an anthropological study. It’s true that on paper this conceit sounds terribly uninteresting—stories about getting shitfaced are not, as a general rule, especially compelling—and so a document of some guy’s debauched tribulations should bore no matter how well it’s produced. Yet somehow Tesfaye transcends the banality of his binging, casting himself as a figure both romantic and tragic, an icon of indulgence as intensely likable as he is irredeemably repulsive, a kind of Bukowski for the coke set. That “somehow” is based at least partly in awe: Tesfaye suggests the limits of hedonism, always coming down from a high higher than you’ve ever been on or ever will be on, at 3 AM an Other even to himself—and in the world of the Weeknd it’s always 3 AM. Welcome to the annals of licentiousness; we hope you don’t have to wake up early tomorrow.
Because he situates himself at the extreme, Tesfaye risks alienating the audience with which he’s attempting to engage. And I accept that what strikes me as fascinating other listeners will instead find creepy or even somewhat depressing. But if Thursday sometimes feels too self-serious about its forays into depravity, Tesfaye himself always seems keenly self-aware: how else can one account for the tongue-in-cheek cry of “I love the guitars!” right at the end of “Lonely Star,” which alleviates the almost anachronistic cheesiness of the quasi-industrial “Life of the Party” riff which immediately follows it? I detect a note of preemptive justification in the gesture—he wants you to know that he knows it’s goofy, but he encourages you to revel in the overblown beat anyway.
Such considerations betray an awful lot of control for someone supposedly so far gone, and that’s the contradiction that drives the record. Thursday isn’t just about this state of mind, a record of misbehavior (Past Perfect); it’s very much a product of it (Present Continuous), a high unfolding. And yet precision is the record’s defining quality, each of these nine songs a sleek, clearly defined whole. Thus Thursday articulates inebriation without itself succumbing to it, espousing indulgence—self-indulgence, principally, but indulgence in anything and everything will do—but shows an incredible degree of restraint, at least aesthetically. McKinney and Illangelo, picking up pretty much where they left off with House of Balloons, continue to provide Tesfaye with smooth, ultra-modern, late-nite soundscapes that liberally borrow from everything while ultimately sounding, much like the last time around, like nothing else.
Insofar as it slinks and shudders, its beats built for rap but largely crooned over, you could call it R&B, but it’s hardly Chocolate Factory (2003), even if Tesfaye does share Kelly’s oddly endearing shamelessness. But in general Thursday nods less to specific genres than to general sensibilities, weaving the barest suggestions of disparate styles, including a few surprising points of reference, into what is already a clearly defined aesthetic framework. Their confidence in this framework is impressive, and although it’s impossible to guess to what degree Drake has been involved in the production of either of these records—though his shout-out around the time House of Balloons dropped is widely considered the primary catalyst for Weeknd’s overnight success, he was never officially involved until recently—here he shows up to deliver a show-stopping verse on “The Zone,” and it’s one of the highlights of the album. Such curatorial instincts reflect either Tesfaye’s great fondness for the structure and pacing of Thank Me Later (2010) or some uncredited executive production from Drizzy.
In any case, sequencing emerges as one Thursday‘s best qualities, and it’s a quality it shares with its predecessor. The structural similarities between the two are striking: both begin with tone-setting highlights; both have a nearly eight-minute slowjam toward the back end; both span nine tracks and roughly 50 minutes. And, as was the case with House Of Balloons, it’s difficult to imagine any of Thursday‘s tracks showing up anywhere but where they do here. The upbeat “Life of the Party” pretty much has to come second, before we’re too settled into the flow of the record; the spacious title track needs to follow that, to reorient us; “The Zone,” the strongest track album-wide, obviously must come fourth, the quintessential pop-sequencing sweet spot; and so on. This was clearly a conscious creative decision, and it contradictions a common expectation: even though this is the Weeknd’s second free mixtape in under a year (with a third allegedly on the way before 2011’s up), they’re not just slapping together whatever material they’ve got lying around. Nothing on Thursday sounds like filler, which suggests one of two possibilities, each equally intimidating: that either they recorded a ton of actual filler that didn’t make the cut, meaning they’ve got an even more impressive work ethic than we’re privy to, or this is all they’ve recorded and they’re just incapable of writing a bad song. Either way, their third mixtape stands a pretty good chance of being great.
And so what, in the end, do we make of Tesfaye himself, the sybarite miscreant with a heart, couched comfortably in a great-sounding, well-structured album? How much you’ll enjoy Thursday depends, ultimately, on your willingness to engage with Tesfaye as a character, even if he’s one you detest. Tesfaye, for what it’s worth, seems to detest himself a little, though he’s long-since resigned himself to whatever he’s become. Still, there’s desperation in here, a pathos that’s humanizing even if it’s hopeless: “I got you,” he sings on “Rolling Stone,” “until you’re used to my face / And my mystery fades.” Fucking is easy; it’s getting to know someone that’s tough. And terrifying: “I’ll be different / I think I’ll be different / I hope I’m not different / And I hope you’ll still listen.” Tesfaye only knows to seek solace at the bottom of a glass table, and maybe you don’t buy that—maybe he doesn’t even buy it, or maybe he just gets that way when he’s high. There’s always next week.