You can disbelieve the hype, but when it comes to a much-buzzed act, you at least have to consider it. This is especially true when it’s why you’re discussing that act in the first place. It’s not like you or your opinion can avoid context. Few things are as endearing as an underdog (the need to shout from a rooftop about under-appreciated acts is blog fuel), and then we hate it when our friends become successful. Pandering to the mainstream can be detrimental (see: Liz Phair‘s fall from grace) or brilliantly subversive (Blondie‘s “Heart of Glass”…and, arguably Liz Phair’s fall from grace, too). Given hip-hop’s evolved ideals, “independent” could be just a nice way of saying “underachieving.” (And then the artists themselves can whine about too much or too little attention and we can whine about their whining vis a vis their record sales and the whole thing becomes one big ball of string to bat around endlessly. Talk about entertainment!)
Toronto’s the Weeknd (Abel Tesfay) is one independent artist whose context is dazzling. Thanks in no small part to his web savvy (free albums! a Tumblr!), he’s helping change how soul music looks, or at least how it’s delivered. As Sean Fennessey wrote in the Village Voice piece responsible for introducing a whole lot of people to Tesfay, “The Weeknd even [doesn't] seem like [an R&B artist] though one listen reveals as much… The mode is the same but the language and delivery are changing.”
But that is exactly why his following — which gobbled up an estimated 180,000 downloads of his second album Thursday on the day of its release last week, crashing his site and the Mediafire page it was hosted on — is perplexing. Could it really be that packaging is what’s keeping this guy from being mentioned and played alongside someone like Trey Songz? (And with a supposed major hand on Drake‘s upcoming sophomore album, what will that mean for his status?)
Tesfay’s first album House of Balloons arrived in March to proclamations that his hazy soul was somehow more palatable to non-R&B listeners than what urban radio has to offer. You can see how the paranoid ambiance of Balloons could win over a dubstep head or two (if anything deserves to be slapped with the unimaginative term “post dubstep” it is Balloons, because it sounds like a comedown after a room-rattling party), but really, the Toronto-based Abel Tesfay is R&B intensified. His trade is melisma, his medium is falsetto. An intoxicated superfreak, he’s Rick James, bitch, but way too cool to make a decade-old reference like that. His beats are as grimy as his lingo — “bitch” here, “bitch” there, everywhere a “bitch,” bitch. He sounds informed by both hip-hop and hip-hop soul, which makes him ultimately exponential. R&B haters digging the Weeknd is like people who hate spicy foods developing a taste for habeñeros. It doesn’t make all that much sense.
A more vital reason for paying attention to the hype here is that it is key to understanding Thursday‘s context. The sophomore release verges on insufferable when it is at its least melodic and most meandering, but it’s also kind of impossible overall: It seems to both cater to those outside of the R&B audience with guitars and an amplified rock sensibility, while asserting Tesfay as an R&B singer even more aggressively. So many of Thursday‘s hooks are little more than melismatic runs. Mostly gone is that layer of ambiance that threatened House of Balloons with gloom — by now, it’s rolled in and brought rumbling drums that are sonically considerable although not singular in sound. They’re amplified blah blah blah.
So Thursday is a drag and it’s a shame. While his lyrics were never his strong suit, as they managed to be profane but not specific (Loft: “Take your f—ing seat / Baby, ride it out / Now, I know you wanna scream baby / I’m better than your next man / And if he’s swinging I’ll get dumber than your next man / ‘Cause I don’t play / Unless it’s keys and I’ll play all day”), Thursday doesn’t even live up to previous standards, as it largely does away with the profanity. The album is based on convoluted weekday imagery introduced in “Lonely Star,” via a pitched-up female voice a la Camille who reveals, “Every Thursday I exist / Only on Thursday.” Whatever that means. It’s reiterated but not further explored during the title track: “Not on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday / Sunday but on Thursday…Thursday.” It’s like Prince’s numerology obsession is too daunting, so it’s being simplified here to an easy-to-manage limit of seven.
But more detrimental than what Tesfay says is how he says it. His voice flutters over his tracks with virtually no variation. For all emphasis, he pushes out the same strained falsetto. He has the emotional range of Chris Brown. Granted, Thursday aims to convey a uniform dour, drug-haze vibe, but Tefay doesn’t seem to have much interest in selling the track. This is perhaps where he deviates most from traditional R&B, where the performance is of utmost importance, ideally turning cliché to confession and carrying the weight of substandard production entirely on one’s vocal cords. As it turns out, this is also the worst place to deviate from traditional R&B.
Tefay just doesn’t sound like he’s trying very hard on Thursday, as though Internet stardom has always already gone to his head and self-entitlement is his de facto aesthetic. But then again, should he have to try so hard? “PBR&B” buzz is part of Thursday‘s context, but so is the fact that it is free and that it arrives less than half a year after its predecessor. The guy is giving himself room to do what he wants, to take his time, to fall down a K-hole for nine tracks if he so chooses. Maybe a gift horse’s mouth isn’t worth much of a look when it’s hanging open in a daze.
Rich Juzwiak is a writer and video editor whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Jezebel, and on This American Life. He runs the pop culture blog Four Four.