The Weeknd of PBR&B
by juli boggs
When 21-year-old Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye released his debut House of Balloons under the moniker The Weeknd earlier this year, the internet was overrun with suspicion about who was really behind the production. Repped by fellow Canadian artist Drake via Twitter, the word on the blogs was that Drake’s producer Noah “40” Shebib was the man behind the magic, a rumor later proved untrue. Whether The Weeknd is truly a young man’s clever debut or a well-timed, well-backed production, House of Balloons has gained a large fan base as much for its intense mood as its sadly depraved subject matter.
While sex and drugs have always been part and parcel of la vida rock n roll (or R&B in this case), House of Balloons is an intense, bare-all journey through a desperate cycle of excess. Backed by slow, sparse beats and down-tuned progressions, the mood is dark and exhausted as it rises to support Tesfaye’s clean and well-tempered, melismatic voice. Overall, there’s nothing spectacular about it, but the formula is so refined you can’t stop listening. It is, as Tesfaye describes, addicting. As in the chorus of “Wicked Games” the lyrics’ poetry is wrapped up with unavoidable heartbreak as he sings “bring your love baby/ I can bring my shame/ brings the drugs baby/ i can bring my pain.”
If House of Balloons stood out for its honest, bare-bones aesthetic, Thursday, the second release of the artist’s planned trilogy, is a little more dressed up. It’s less desperate, more enticing, but overall harder to sink your teeth into. While Thursday lacks the solid track-by-track progression of its predecessor, both releases are ultimately stronger as a sum of their parts than by individual songs.
The Weeknd is just one of several R&B groups gaining appeal to a wider fan base over the last couple of years. Artists such as Drake, Frank Ocean, The-Dream, and How To Dress Well are among those being credited with renewing the appeal of R&B music by refreshing their approach to the genre and breaking into the hipster (read “white middle class”) audience. Village Voice writer Eric Harvey cleverly coined the indie-friendly wave PBR&B, sparking discussions across the board about the “gentrification” of R&B. Questions such as “is it only R&B because the artist is black” and “is it still R&B if fans of the new wave reject traditional artists in the genre” are still to be definitively answered.
Check out The Weeknd track below featuring a manipulated sample of Beach House’s “Master of None”.