Trigger warning for the readers: mention of drugs
Hauntingly beautiful. The carefreeness of nightlife. The glorification of drug culture.
That’s what I would describe The Weeknd’s music as to the uninitiated. And since his new album After Hours is due to come out on the day this article is published, I thought I might break down his evolution as an artist. I’ll be covering Trilogy and Starboy as I find these two to be his most essential works.
Many may know The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) from his hit singles “Can’t Feel My Face” in 2015, “Starboy” in 2016 and most recently “Blinding Lights”, however, he has been in the scene for almost a decade now. Back in 2011, he released three mixtapes: House Of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes Of Silence which were later repackaged as Trilogy. The mixtapes encompassed the genres alternative RnB, hip hop and pop. All three mixtapes were met with overwhelmingly positive reception and critical acclaim.
And it’s easy to understand why The Weeknd’s powerful and sensual vocals, combined with the incredible production by Doc McKinney and Illangelo, is pure perfection. From sparse instrumentals on “The Party And The After Party” and “What You Need” to grandiose instrumentals on “House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” and “Loft Music”, The Weeknd’s voice is always the focal point, accompanied with the most visceral and engrossing production.
The subject matter on the mixtapes ranges from sex and drugs… to sex and drugs. The Weeknd sings about his life of sin in a way so alluring, it makes you want to be a part of the fun. In the very first song ‘High For This’, The Weeknd sings ‘Trust me, girl, you wanna be high for this’ over an airy and spacey instrumental. It’s the perfect start to Trilogy. The Weeknd’s angelic voice lulling the young women into damnation, beckoning Alice’s down his rabbit hole of debauchery.
At the time of House Of Balloon’s release, The Weeknd was homeless. He dropped out of high school in Scarborough and ran away to Toronto. Living in the moment every day, from one mattress to another, abusing drugs to get by. It’s easy to imagine what he was: low life. He gladly represents this with his feature on Future’s “Low Life” in 2016.
By the next release – Thursday – he had already received widespread popularity amongst the hip-hop and RnB community. Sporting a feature from Drake, fellow Toronto native, on “The Zone” on Thursday, The Weeknd started touring and playing shows in Toronto as an opening act for Drake, slowly being exposed to the mainstream. Although not part of his discography, on Take Care album released in the same year, The Weeknd was a heavy influence, contributing ideas and songs. “Crew Love”, and “The Ride” are a few songs he contributed to the album. In December when Echoes Of Silence was released, it’s safe to say he could sleep on a bed and call it his by now, and perhaps be in a better place, mentally and physically.
You would think then at the end of the Trilogy he would be releasing music reflective of his newly gained wealth and status. But if you were to listen through all three mixtapes in chronological order, you would notice the increase in depravity from one mixtape to the next. From the lyrical content to the overall production, the intensity level for everything ramps up. It’s as if House Of Balloons is the sweet promise of heaven and Echoes Of Silence is the fulfilment of that promise. Echoes Of Silence tells of a man at his worst, coming down from his high; House Of Balloons is about a man embarking on his narcotic ventures, and Thursday is the mediator between these two. The overall mood of the music between each mixtape simply becomes darker and darker.
Take for example, “XO / The Host” on Echoes Of Silence, the mood and tone of the instrumental tells of a man who has lived in debauchery for so long – he’s so jaded and unfazed – that it hurts for him to live this life of pleasure. Whether it be drugs, women or both, in the outro of “XO / The Host”, on the subdued instrumentals he sings:
Well, I got a test for you,
you said you want my heart,
well, baby you can have it all,
there’s just something that I,
need from you is to meet my boys
As we progress into “Initiation”, we hear him recycling the ‘boys’ lyrical theme (whether that be other like-minded men or other drugs is up for discussion) with his vocals pitching up and down every other second or so. It’s personally one of the best usages of vocal effects I’ve ever heard. You feel as though you’re there with him, breathing in the same air, taking in the same substances, feeling the same sensations as him.
Now onto Starboy.
And here we have The Weeknd at the peak of his superstardom. Taking an approach completely opposite to the one he took in the Trilogy era, the music made was much more radio-friendly. More pop, more house, less RnB and less rap. That doesn’t mean it was bad, it simply meant a different side of him on display. Channelling the soul of the man he revered as a child, Michael Jackson, to mention a few he made the songs “A Lonely Night”, “Love to Lay” and “True Colors”. Let’s not forget “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” he made in collaboration with the house duo giants Daft Punk.
To put things in perspective, five years ago, The Weeknd was barely scraping by. Living in the moment – for the moment. In 2016, after multiple Billboard chartings from his previous releases Kissland (2013) and Beauty Behind The Madness (2015) and features, he is living a life completely opposite to his life five years ago. Well, maybe some things such as his substance abuse didn’t change much. Although he has stated that he has toned it down, using it only when he needs a boost to his creativity.
As such it’s completely natural for his subject matter, lyrical content and musical output to change as it has; with many of the songs following the traditional song structures now and having tamer lyrics.
I hear the secrets that you keep,
when you’re talkin’ in your sleep,
I hear the secrets that you keep, keep, keep,
when you’re talk, talkin’, talkin’
No longer does he live in hardship, being one of Toronto’s low life, living comfy now instead amongst the bourgeoisie. From rags to riches. Still, his vocal performances have remained superb, still the same beautiful voice. On parts of the album, he shows that he can still deliver gritty music with songs such as “Six Feet Under”, “Reminder”, and “Party Monster”.
In short, what The Weeknd delivers on Starboy is much more accessible to the mainstream in comparison to Trilogy, with its dark and crude subject matter. There are a lot of amazing songs on here; some songs reminiscent of his Trilogy days, some his progressions into pop. All in all, Starboy did a great job of reintroducing The Weeknd to the public after Beauty Behind The Madness in 2015; especially if we take into account the new persona he created after cutting his iconic palm tree hairstyle.
2020: After Hours
Now based off the singles released so far: “Heartless”, “Blinding Lights” and “After Hours” my expectations for After Hours is that it’ll be something akin to Starboy, but much more refined; that he’s perfected the art of balancing songs similar to ones from Trilogy with poppier songs on the tracklisting.
My expectations for the new album are very high and hopefully, it lives up to the hype. I know I’ll be listening to the album the moment it releases, I hope you do too. Check out the playlist here!
So here’s something new to listen to, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Take care everyone.
Written by Norman Shaqir Shariran