“R&B changed again.”
So wrote Sean Fennessey in The Village Voice a year and a half ago, referring to the then-mysterious debut by the Weeknd (vocalist Abel Tefsaye, with producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney) and the cloud of secondhand smoke it seemed to cast over the genre. At the time, the reaction seemed pretty hasty for an album that’d been out all of two days, even more so when the guys responsible were a couple cocksure Canadians with minimal ties to the genre they’d supposedly just changed. But it wasn’t disproportionate, at least not against the Weeknd’s gargantuan buzz. Pundits predicted accolades (again, only days in.) People named peers — primarily Frank Ocean, on grounds of Odd Future’s Tumblr game, the nonchalant, free distribution and carefully chosen samples of his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape and its lead single “Novacane,” a bleak dispatch from a spiral of listless fucking, halfhearted drug use and atrophied emotions that peters out into nothing. Other people pointed out that free mixtapes and samples were kind of how urban music works, appointing other peers who’d been quietly changing R&B, just on R&B radio and with a tenth the hype. Genre lines were drawn, then erased. Audiences were classified and dissected and polemicized against in enough detail for a presidential campaign. Tempests raged in teacups. The guys in the Weeknd, meanwhile, mostly just put out content, silently and on schedule.
“At the Weeknd’s best, their songs come off like needle-precise character studies, where the sex and power dynamics crackle like raw wires; at their worst, they’re like what that party guy might be in real life: rambling, plying you with stale negging, passing out on a couch.”
We’re almost a year after the Weeknd’s final mixtape, Echoes of Silence, and it’s clear they’ve changed something. It may well be R&B, judging by the haze and malaise that’s seemingly everywhere. Usher’s made some bargain that’s trapped him half the year in David Guetta’s underworld, but the rest of the time he’s putting out things like “Climax,” a Diplo-produced, climax-free relationship postmortem that, when it came out, garnered more than a few Weeknd comparisons. Ocean’s parlayed his signal boost (between the Weeknd thinkpieces and the Odd Future ones, he’s a contender for most written-about artist of the 2010s) into one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. You can keep naming R&B acts: Miguel, Dawn Richard, Jhené Aiko, even artists who lean more pop JoJo and Wynter Gordon; they’re all reminiscent of some part of the Weeknd’s aesthetic or strategy, whether their succession of mixtapes, their bypassing the standard release cycle or, most importantly, their faded apathy and dreary late-night sound. Not all the credit (or blame) goes to the Weeknd — a lot of it’s probably due to producer and fellow Torontonian Noah “40” Shebib, via frequent collaborator Drake – but it’s increasingly hard not to drop their name. If their visibility is an indication, it’s only going to get harder; the Weeknd’s now signed to a major label, and last year’s mixtapes are getting a proper, bundled (and monetizable) release, called Trilogy. It makes the genre nitpicking seem rather pointless; sure, they blurred everyone’s genre lines, but more than that, they secured themselves saying power.
By now the Weeknd formula’s quite familiar, but just in case, here’s a primer: They deal in dark, woozy confessions about sex, drugs and the blurry headspace where they intersect. Most of their material seems written to prove the adage that nothing good happens after 3 a.m. Tesfaye has two vocal moods: a swoony croon that gives way, once he’s high with the upper hand, to sounds more sinister: desperate panting, pitch-shifted taunting. It’s a character he plays throughout: think Eugene Onegin via Patrick Bateman, a Byronic hero on heroin, the sort of guy who goes to house parties, skulks and tokes in a corner somewhere, then emerges just as the party guests — the female guests, more precisely — have gotten more fucked up and malleable than he is. Nobody’s happy, and he’s not helping. The songs are seductions, or coercions, or bouts of self-loathing that are probably in the service of seduction or coercion, or sometimes screeds against girls who’ve countered with coercions of their own. They’re filled with enough drugs, tears and slimy guitars to constitute biohazards. As Tesfaye’s star grows, they’re also filled with fame, but in this song world, it’s just a conduit to women being different sorts of terrible (though, inevitably, he’s neither rejecting it nor spurning what from all outward appearances are entire platoons of advances). At the Weeknd’s best, their songs come off like needle-precise character studies, where the sex and power dynamics crackle like raw wires; at their worst, they’re like what that party guy might be in real life: rambling, plying you with stale negging, passing out on a couch. Even sympathetic listeners will probably find a point once every few songs where they just laugh. (If “they don’t want my love, they just want my potential!” — deployed after love’s long since been out of the question — doesn’t do it, Juicy J gleefully bigging up Tesfaye’s prowess might do it. Or barring that: “I am God.”)
Trilogy inevitably comes off as that recap, a victory lap and a reminder. It holds up, mostly. The thing’s front-loaded; House of Balloons remains their best album-as-unit, far better than the 30-song album here. If you really wanted to, you could argue that the structure’s deliberate, an attempt to mimic a long, meandering high and comedown; it’s a lot easier to say they just need editing. There’s been remastering, though these songs came so fully-formed the first time around that any changes are minimal. All the samples are still here except Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” on “What You Need” (it’s tempting to speculate that the late singer’s camp, after Drake’s “Enough Said” travesty, has an automatic veto on any further contamination by Drake or his affiliates.) There are three new songs, though they’re all diluted in some way. “Twenty Eight” is a piano mope about some woman’s amorphous misdeeds; it can’t decide whether she’s clingy, crazy, lonely or two-timing, and it doesn’t seem on purpose. “Valerie,” which isn’t a cover, is standard sadcore but at least has a nice, if predictable, lyrical swerve: “There comes a point in a man’s life he must take responsibility … there are certain things he must do, things that he must say, like ‘I love you,’ and ‘I need you,’ ‘I only want you,’ — and nobody’s going to know if it’s true.” “Till Dawn,” meanwhile, has an almost delicate hook, where the Weeknd almost makes you believe he wishes she will stay the night. It’s lush but uncharacteristic; it comes off either as another game or, more likely, as a discarded bonus track.
The lack of editing is strange, because editing — or at least curation — is the Weeknd’s entire modus operandi. Very little of what they do is truly new. Their anhedonic shtick goes back centuries of libertines and decades of R&B hollow men. (Nor are they always men; there’s a female-sung Drake/Weeknd answer song seemingly once a month now, and if you really want to go out on a limb, there’s a case that characters like Bat for Lashes’ Pearl, the self-destructive figure from Two Suns who loves and leaves and stumbles through all “last night’s parties [and] last night’s horror shows,” is a female Weeknd analogue.)
The music, too, has decades of predecessors. After all, as Fennessey wrote, this is “pro music, made by pros.” There are R&B slow jams, of course, which pros would be familiar with; particularly those who spent years marinating in the Toronto scene, long a hotbed of debut artists, one of them who happened to be a hip-hop breakout. They spent years in other scenes, too; producer Doc McKinney jobbed around for years and before that was one-half of trip-hop act Esthero. Listening to them now, it’s eerie how much they sound like some of the crunchier Weeknd tracks. Nor are they the only ones. Half of Mezzanine would make sense on Trilogy, and vice versa. The same goes for Tricky’s work (fittingly, considering “The Birds (Part 2)” samples collaborator Martina Topley-Bird); the same goes for Trent Reznor, as has been pointed out, and really anything from the intersection of trip-hop and industrial in the late ‘90s. Then come the samples and collaborators, so meticulously chosen to appeal to a certain subset of taste as to be almost cynical: the aforementioned Aaliyah, Topley-Bird, Beach House, Siouxie and the Banshees, Clams Casino. In one sense, they’re the auditory version of the American Apparel stylings of their album art, chosen for slickness, but they also anticipate the pick-a-little nature of so much music in 2012. The Weeknd didn’t invent curation (so many producers would line up to contest that claim; The-Dream actually did), but they sure made a success story of it. A sustainable one, at that — if the Weeknd’s about anything, it’s about searching for new highs.’
The Weeknd’s Trilogy is out today via Universal/XO.