When someone mentions R&B in a conversation about music, there’s usually an audible sigh from another participant. Or at least, if there’s not, there probably should be. No longer even vaguely associable with its original acronym, which was for Rhythm & Blues, everything from the music itself to the three-character moniker has changed, and we’re now exposed to – or, perhaps more appropriately, victims of – ‘RnB’.
The genre has recently undergone something of a crisis of confidence, no longer a top-ten tentpole as it was a few years ago. For those who followed the charts in the early 2000s, however, the end could not come soon enough. In those early years of the 21st Century, it became the go-to style for record labels, and they duly turned the genre into a photocopier, flooding the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with ‘soulful’ male RnB singers, most unidentifiable from one another.
Fortunately, the revival and reclamation of RnB is underway. The likes of Drake, Frank Ocean and Abel Tesfaye having spent the last year showing everyone it’s possible to make good, rough-edged RnB.
“Hold on. Who’s Abel Tesfaye?” is the question now crossing your mind as you re-read the above. Abel Tesfaye is The Weeknd. The Weeknd is Abel Tesfaye. For despite its deceptive, collective-implying name, the latest big name in RnB is the work of one Canadian man.
Even better, he gives his music to you for nothing. One swift trip to The Weeknd’s official website will enable you to download both Tesfaye’s mixtapes/albums to date, House of Balloons and the follow-up, Thursday, which was released in late August.
House of Balloons, which came out in March, created some sizeable web-waves: strong word-of-mouth from listeners, healthy reviews and shout-outs from Drake on Twitter all contributed to its popularity. Its stories of drug and drink-fuelled parties where no-one, much less our staggering protagonist, can really remember what happened. His electro-influenced beats, usually accompanied by atmospheric, droning synths and super-80s snare sounds, paint an image of foggy parties with smoke in the air and tunes blaring on the stereo – they sound somehow distant, like they’re being recalled through the haze of the morning after.
Tesfaye’s lyrics are constantly foraging for clues and answers, both to the events themselves and to attempt to reconcile them with the real world. Enormously profane, but creatively so, they’re certainly unique, and when sung with such beauty in Tesfaye’s distinctive high register, they sound honest, not dressed up in bad words to increase street cred but to tap into the psyche of our protagonist. The frankness of his lyrical style works, too: on the day of Thursday‘s release, so many people tried to access The Weeknd’s site to download it that it crashed. By the end of day one, 180,000 people had flocked to hear Tesfaye’s new material.
In the parlance of the genre, these are slow jams, but ones unafraid to look into the grime behind the glamour of these extravagant parties. These aren’t the veneer-smeared club nights we hear about in lazy hip-hop tracks, but the kinds of house parties everyone secretly wants to go to, full of attractive people, weed and plenty of free booze.
A few beats into the atmospheric strains of tracks like ‘The Zone’ (Thursday) or ‘High For This’ (House of Balloons) and we’re instantly transported to this half-remembered world, helped by Tesfaye’s unorthodox gift for descriptive lyricism (this from ‘The Morning’ on House of Balloons):
“From the morning to the evening
Complains from the tenants
Got the walls kicking like they six months pregnant
Drinking Alize with our cereal for breakfast
Girls calling cabs at dawn, quarter to seven”
Yet for all the decadence of the parties we hear about through Tesfaye’s two almost-concept albums – and, one assumes, in the final instalment of this trilogy, called Echoes of Silence (release date TBC) – the truth of the songs lies in the honesty and vulnerability of our guide. Tesfaye’s not some indestructible drug-fuelled superman, but a recognisably human protagonist with troubles and personal problems to which we can relate, even if they’re much more dramatic than our habitual concerns: “I left my girl at home / I don’t love her no more / and she’ll never fuckin’ know that” he sings on ‘Wicked Games’ (House of Balloons). For all the fun of these seemingly endless nights out, he is, at heart, a conflicted soul, the kind who falls for a girl who’ll “probably OD before I show her to Momma” (‘The Party & The After Party’, House of Balloons).
Yet although the first album we got from Tesfaye was superb both musically and lyrically, Thursday surpasses it on both grounds. The two-part epic ‘The Birds’ has a refrain – “don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me” – which not only acts as a warning to the woman in the song, but also a devastating appraisal of self-worth and an admission of deep personal flaws. Shattering the ego-centric sterotype of the RnB star, it’s a perfect encapsulation of The Weeknd’s ethos of soul-bearing honesty and doubt. Like a lot of the best rap and hip-hop of the last couple of years, from Kanye West’s incomparably magnificent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the darkest nightmares of Odd Future, it comes from a place of inner darkness and stomach-churning personal uncertainty.
Showcasing a breadth and depth of talent uncommon in artists twice his fragile 21 years, Abel Tesfaye has, in the space of one year, gone from an unknown to a buzzword. Gripping, memorable music whose appeal only increases listen upon listen, The Weeknd is something to have an opinion on, and very possibly the next poster-boy for the genre.