Ideally, you’d want to be able to criticize an artist on his/her own merits instead basing that critique on peer comparisons. Doing the latter can lead to some lazy judgments and missing out on an enjoyable experience because of the skewed perception doesn’t do anybody any good. With that in mind, it’s still extremely hard to describe PARTYNEXTDOOR without at least thinking about The Weeknd’s career arc.
Think back to 2011, when The Weeknd was a mysterious and enigmatic young R&B crooner out of Toronto. His anonymity was a big part of his appeal and the Drake co-sign was unquestionably huge too, but Abel Tesfaye’s portrayal of The Weeknd’s character was probably what made the audience—or this author, at least—stick around. There’s no question The Weeknd is the villain throughout those three mixtapes, but at the center of those impressively produced tracks lies an interesting character. He does “Shakespearean lines” of coke with the homies, coos a woman into gang rape, and feels at home at only the most sinful of nightlife activities, but the singer sort of ebbs and flows between these happenings. There’s subdued desperation within the manipulation of House of Balloon’s “What You Need” and there’s the quiet remorse in Echoes of Silence. It’s as Touré says in his thinkpiece about “Initiation”: Art made from the point of view of villains and monsters is compelling.
Well, at least it was compelling. In the almost two years since Echoes of Silence, Tesfaye hasn’t really grown that much lyrically and The Weeknd persona revealed itself to be a shallow one as Tesfaye tiringly continued to tread the same themes of sex, drugs, and emotional unavailability. This recent stale output is the reason the idea of 19-year-old PARTYNEXTDOOR—who sings about pretty much the same topics—feels a bit retrograde. Once again, we have an R&B artist who we know little about who’s co-signed by Drake, albeit this time he’s actually signed to Drake’s label. “Retrograde” starts to feel like déjà vu once you hear PND’s vocal similarity to The Weeknd and sometimes even Drake. But if you strip the comparisons and co-signs, you’re still getting a pretty average self-titled debut.
PARTYNEXTDOOR loses a lot of its replay value because of the Canadian’s on-the-mic performance. The lyrics are lacking, and that’s not because it’s simply about women and narcotics; it just feels like he wrote them simply to fill the quota. A lot of them feel like failed quotables made for Facebook and Twitter—a songwriting style Drake (unintentionally?) mastered. On “Relax With Me” he sings, “Got a budget on yo’ ass though/So she let me bust it on her ass” as if the brothers listening are supposed to respond with some sort of resounding “YEAH!” Later on the track he says, “I wanna tear the kitty, watch the pussy swell,” to which I say there’s a fine line between emotionless rawness and childishness.
Other misses include “Wus Good/Curious”’s “She just changed her Twitter/To “Party-Gets Me Wetter” and the overall blandness of the album-opening “Welcome to the Party”. PND’s “All I ever asked for was patience/Patience and pussy but mostly patience” on the Drake-assisted “Over Here” feels like a piece of self-deprecation. Mostly patience? He surely can’t expect us to believe that’s the case when he’s been suggesting otherwise in the eight previous tracks.
The vocal performance leaves a lot to be desired, too. PND is clearly a limited singer, but that’s just something he has to work with. Except for “Tbh”, he just sounds dull and uncharismatic to the point where his presence feels arbitrary at times. PND sounds bored on “Welcome to the Party”, and there’s nothing in his voice in “Make a Mil” and “Ballin’” that’ll make it immediately recognizable in a future feature or single, which could be damaging for a new artist.
But then you take a step back and discover a stunning duality; PARTYNEXTDOOR the songwriter may be forgettable, but PARTYNEXTDOOR the producer represents the shinier side of the coin. The beats make up for the artist’s lyrical shortcomings and then some. Most of the backdrops in the ten tracks share a cohesive, club-ready vibe while being easily discernable. The bounce in “Wild Bitches” gives way to the urgent claps and lullaby keys on “Relax With Me”, while the jazzy saxophone sneaks its way into both tracks to give some sort of emotional continuity underneath PND’s lust.
PARTYNEXTDOOR reaches its zenith in “Right Now”’s hook, which captures a sense of nocturnal ecstasy as PND admonishes you to quit fucking with the lames. Here, the lush production is joined by what sounds like a computerized synth line. The moment captures the strengths and failings of his debut. The synth line brings a sense of expectancy as it follows right along with the keys’ note progression, unintentionally symbolizing the already seen route PND seems to be taking. We will undoubtedly learn more about PARTYNEXTDOOR the artist and person as time progresses, but the question is what will we find once the mystery curtains are pulled, and will we stay and observe the findings even if it is a fancy curtain? Is he a compelling villain?