CLASSIC REVIEW: The Weeknd, House of Balloons
As far as contemporary culture goes, I cannot think of a more influential entity than Tumblr from 2010-2014. It’s odd to see how that site and BitCoin were so secretly popular at the same time, because in the years to follow anyone who didn’t invest in the two significantly missed out. Collectives like Odd Future and A$AP Mob were essentially bred from the site; it was a place where outcasts could be stars. You could upload a black and white porn GIF and all the sudden you’re talking to a future model or future comedy writer, with a pyramid as their logo and/or a name like “tsunamiwavesurfing” More than any other musician, I think The Weeknd owes everything he has to Tumblr.
In the early 2010s, I could not get through five posts without seeing some variation of that color gradient mixtape cover art he was so infamous for; Thursday was the one I saw the most. Back then, nobody knew what The Weeknd was. Were they a band? A DJ and singer combo? The sound of these early tapes was coated in nocturnal moods, hedonism and drug use. Lots and lots of drug use, my God. To be honest with you, at the time I strictly viewed his music as a soundtrack to Pulp Fiction overdose GIFs and aesthetic pictures of Hawaii, I never really enjoyed or took what he was doing seriously. I enjoyed the pop vignettes of Frank Ocean so much more.
His debut tape House of Balloons, with the exception of a few dull moments, is a masterful project in retrospect, and in many respects it is the genesis for alternative-R&B and helped to shift regular R&B into a much darker and moody place. Like rock in the modern day, the genre painted itself into a corner, continuously looking back at the past for inspiration rather than looking forward to the future. The genius of House of Balloons was how it distilled 2010s Tumblr culture — the music of bands like Beach House, aesthetic pictures of old movies, the porn GIFs and the open drug use — and turned it into performance art. Along with Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra, it assigned a sound to the feelings of angst and heartbreak that bubbled under the surface for many young kids. No wonder why a song with the chorus “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school” from Odd Future resonated with so many, the youth were going through it and needed an outlet to express themselves.
It makes even more sense when you realize how young all these people were. Earl Sweatshirt was 16, Tyler was 19, Frank was 24, A$AP Yams was 22, and The Weeknd was 21 in 2011. In many respects, these guys were like the internet’s older brothers. To a certain extent, a lot of these guys were almost posing to impress us (Tyler and Earl especially), but it was always clear from the beginning that The Weeknd was dead serious. Tracks like the opener on H.O.B. “High For This” is such a grand statement of purpose, everything from the primal drums to the dubstep-adjacent drop to tempting lyrics like “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you’re here for” is a projection of excess to hide deep sadness. The Weeknd was really on cocaine stealing someone’s girl every other day, but his reasoning for doing it was always in the subtext.
“Wicked Games”, like many tracks on the tape, serves as a thesis statement of sorts. Lines like “bring the drugs baby, I can bring my pain” seemed like throwaway bro-isms to me at the time, but looking back they traced the outline for his entire career. It’s no wonder that he referenced House of Balloons so much on After Hours to the point that he even brought back the tape’s producer, Ilangelo. Just like many stars of today, The Weeknd’s entire career starts and ends with House of Balloons. It's the first chapter in his story, one that’s led him to so many highs and lows throughout his storied life in the limelight.
Musically, the album has a great sense of balance between build up and come down. Some songs are slow and cyclical, like “Coming Down” or the desperate “What You Need”. The latter loops Abel’s horny beckons of “He’s what you want, I’m what you need” over this twinkling space rhythm, it’s totally entrancing. Tracks like “The Morning” are cycling in their own ways, but have much more to offer on every front. This song is such a fucking powerhouse, Abel doesn’t waste a single word, “Fast life gripping/Yeah, we still tippin'/Codeine cups paint a picture so vivid/Fakes try to mimic/Get girls timid/But behind closed doors they get poles so rigid” Tumblr guys like Abel were so inventive in how they ignored the trends of their area in favor of whatever he wanted. Just as A$AP Rocky bit Houston’s sound for his own gain, Abel does the same on this track. It’s syrupy slow structure and reference to the classic Southern banger “Still Tippin’” are a prelude to the globetrotting nature of him and his contemporary Drake.
It was Abel’s re-blogging style that caught the ears of many, and he did it in a way that no one else at the time did. Instead of flipping soul, R&B or rap tracks, his producers were flipping through the ‘80s, ‘90s and modern indie scene for inspiration. As stated previously, we get flips of both “Gita” and “Master of None” by Beach House, as well as a very subdued Cocteau Twins sample on the track “The Knowing” (incredible closer btw).
The best track on the entire album owes its first half to “Happy House” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. “This is, a happy house, we’re happy here, in the happy house” Abel interpolates the classic post-punk track to try to convince you everyone at his fucked up house party is having a great old time. “House of Balloons” is an incredibly driving and wacky bit of electro-pomp that has these devilish and cultish lyrics like “you belong to me!”, the background vocals just make it all so sinister. The track transitions into its second part, “Glass Table Girls”, so perfectly, rivaling “Nights” or “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean, with even more excess. It’s 6:30 am, there’s pills, champagne, and $7,000 Boeing 707 glass tables, and everyone is having sex with the doors open. Uncut Gems gave a small preview of the girl stealing that he’d engage in, but “Glass Table Girls” is like the cuckold version of Eyes Wide Shut, it’s like a religious experience for sad boyfriends.
Is this album misogynistic? Yes. Was Anthony Fantano accurate in assessing this as Jersey Shore R&B back in 2011? Kind of. Some people have criticized the lyrics of this album for being a little “Blurred Lines”-like, and I get that too. All the criticisms of this album are valid, but I would say that Abel has proven himself to be above all the bad shit on this album. He’s still rapping and crooning about having sex and doing coke, but now he’s doing it at the Pepsi Halftime Show on more advanced material like “Starboy” and “Blinding Lights”. He’s gone from the deepest darkest corners of Toronto to the brightest possible lights and has exercised both the problematic and boring demons of his debut tapes out of his current sound. Nevertheless, House of Balloons still holds up and gets better with age like fine wine because it’s greatness overtakes the ugliness. After Hours is the peak or near peak of what he could do, but it would be nothing without the mucky foundation that is House of Balloons.