In the beginning, before The Weeknd’s big reveal, I thought the slight, beatific voice responsible for the bleak, morally dubious R&B of the group’s celebrated House Of Balloons might actually belong to one Tevin Campbell.
You remember Tevin, don’t you? The preternaturally skilled adolescent singer who came up in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Quincy Jones, Prince and Babyface? My half-baked theory that the former child star—one blessed with an angel’s falsetto and responsible for some of the most memorable pop R&B hooks of the last 25 years—had somehow reinvented himself as The Weeknd’s depraved, strung-out deviant was a juicy idea, no matter how far-flung: a fallen star suddenly making songs about fallen angels. In the pantheon of urban music conspiracy theories it would have ranked somewhere above Milli Vanilli and far below Tupac Is Still Alive. I feel I deserve some amount of credit for at least thinking of it.
The point here is that for all of its disgorged gluttony of information, the Internet can still act as a handy shroud with which to maintain anonymity. Even after The Weeknd revealed himself to be Canadian singer/songwriter Abel Tesfaye at some point in late 2011, it still took most of the populace a solid 12 months to get acclimated to the man’s face. The norm on music blogs were hazy renderings of Tesfaye with either all or part of his grill scrubbed away with cheap Photoshop tricks. As we’re all learning these days, even a lack of identity can be an identity if purveyed repetitively enough and in such a fashion by the Internet.
At this point, there’s not much else to say about The Weeknd’s trilogy of 2011 albums that hasn’t already been said. House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence now taken together form the basis of the group’s “debut album”, fitting called, Trilogy. If you haven’t heard the material already then consider this official Universal Republic release your initial descent into The Weeknd’s hovel of casual sex and pharmacopoeia of drugs. (For the already descended there are three new tracks here to snort and inhale to: “Twenty Eight”, “Valerie” and “Till Dawn”.)
Along with most of the under-overground music world, I was a huge initial fan of House of Balloons. It was easy to become enamored with The Weeknd’s hazy aesthetic: those muted rhythms and synthesizers-on-acid, acted as the perfect delivery vehicles for Tesfaye’s detached, borderline-criminal sexual longings. The Weeknd is headphone music for the after-party set, especially those not concerned with having to get up early the next day for church. It’s dirty enough to get you in the mood but absolutely not suitable for the chronically monogamous.
Thursday continued in the same vein as Balloons, definitely the weakest of the three EPs but in hindsight, and now in consideration as part of Trilogy’s greater puzzle, a suitable bridge between albums. Echoes of Silence was the most pop-oriented of the collection and featured the moody “Montreal” and charged electro cover of MJ’s “Dirty Diana” as the exemplary set pieces for that style. As the final EP, Echoes does its job of inserting a period at the end of this Weeknd’s particular narrative and I would argue that it comes at the right time.
Trilogy is 30 songs long and while the tracks still retain their dynamism (“House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” remains a beast of an electronic workout, its processed screams and wicked synth transition between parts wraps Tesfaye’s deadpan irony in a spiked digital blanket; one to remember, for sure), the drugs/sex/club imagery starts to drone into not just a cold static environment over the course of the album, but also a mundane one.
Certainly the thrill of The Weeknd is intact on Trilogy, and those not in-the-know are positioned well to experience it for the first time. But as Abel Tesfaye continues to step more into the light, whether through live performances, in-person interviews, or collaborations with Wiz Khalifa, there raises the next question: Where does this group go from here?
Much of The Weeknd’s music concerns a substance-induced separation from reality, as our modern experience with life is, at least partially, a simulation generated by the billions of coalesced voices on the internet. The discernment here is that while the blog-obsessed among us come to trust some of those online voices—following their criticisms to the neat ends of their posts, adopting consistent views and thereby becoming part of the narratives—The Weeknd intentionally shies away from anything emotionally lasting or concrete, as if the truth he might find were a means to a dimensional end rather than a depthless one where anything is possible. This group, as it currently exists, is mostly about the place where pills and possession intersect, but that can’t really be all, can it?
As it turned out, the voice on the other end of The Weeknd wasn’t a familiar one, but no matter, Abel Tesfaye is still making his money off of questions with ambiguous answers. There’s no greater conspiracy at work here, but there are still open-ended inquiries and doors that remain closed. As we wait for The Weeknd’s next move, I wonder which is the greater thrill: What actually comes next, or the suspense of not knowing?