What do you know about Abel Tesfaye?
Not much, right? Well, yeah: that’s sorta the point. If you read the press on The Weeknd — and there has been plenty of ink spilled regarding the nascent R&B star — you’ve doubtless seen the man and his project described as shrouded, cloaked, or otherwise metaphorically encompassed in mystery. All we really know, aside from his affiliation with Drake and a Tumblr full of remixes and heavily stylized photography, is that we aren’t supposed to know anything about The Weeknd.
As a PR strategy, it’s nothing short of brilliant. So many of his contemporaries have embraced a distinctly likable personal brand to reach an audience (looking at you, Wiz Khalifa), and so many others have reached one in spite of themselves — viz. Drake, whose past as a Canadian soap opera star will draw snickers no matter how many times he makes a platinum record. Tesfaye, by contrast, offers only a well-publicized absence of self. His on-record misogyny could be an unsparing chronicle of its author. It could also be an utter fabrication. House of Balloons and Thursday, casually dropped as they were into the unwitting blogosphere, exist almost entirely without agency. If music in this era cannot live in a complete vacuum, The Weeknd at least comes pretty close.
This is clearly intentional, and shrewd. Thursday brings an undeniable element of shock value. It’s not that the album shocks the listener to mask its defects, like the worst Odd Future releases. But there simply isn’t much precedent for The Weeknd’s ambitious and well-defined blueprint. The lack of context only amplifies the jolt of Tesfaye’s novel approach: an almost anonymous wolf in sheep’s clothing, with an upper register that belies its consuming vapidity and narcissism, articulating these tortured come-ons over an expertly dark sonic palette. It’s fascinating and appalling and totally engrossing, a densely definitive and introspective work that commands attention without seeming to consciously do so.
At the same time, though, it’s hard not to step back at some point and wonder what really is going on here, and that’s the moment when the conceit of The Weeknd falls flat. That’s not to say that Thursday itself does the same; the impeccably precise production, after all, might be the most impressive part of the whole project, and Tesfaye stands alongside The-Dream and Frank Ocean as (PB?)R&B’s most compelling leading lights. But once the initial eyebrows-raised astonishment wears off, there’s a noticeable lack of dynamism to Thursday. He is either putting us on, or he sort of is, or he isn’t at all — regardless, his unsatisfied hedonism and lechery eventually run together, and the album starts to seem pretty light, conceptually.
By promising three mixtapes in a single year, Tesfaye may also have bit off a little more than he and producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo could chew. House of Balloons and Thursday both clock in around 50 minutes, but the former never felt strained or bloated. This may simply be the result of The Weeknd’s wholly singular aesthetic wearing thin, but I suspect there’s something more to it than that. “Serotonin” is the sort of word that belongs on this record no more than once, so by the second time Tesfaye croons implicitly about the effect of his ecstasy usage on his brain chemicals, he’s running out of ways to convey how fucked up he got. Or hear the menacing guitars and rolling, martial drums of “Heaven or Las Vegas,” which sound so familiar because they were used to better effect on “Life of the Party” and the stunning “The Birds Part 1,” respectively.
That track, along with the other half of the suite, “The Birds Part 2,” stands out as a high point here, in part because it offers us some narrative, not just a leering profile of a possibly fictional character. Even though his refrain, “Don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me,” sounds a little contrived, he’s still striving to develop his character into something beyond its admittedly savvy guise of anonymity. Like “High For This” or “Wicked Games,” “The Birds” gives depth to a persona that is sometimes content to merely jar the listener with its depravity.
Tesfaye will sell a million copies of whatever record he ultimately decides to sell, and for good reason. His project as a whole is almost faultlessly disciplined and expertly executed. And the production, as on House of Balloons, truly elevates Thursday, somehow manipulating a range of genre-spanning signifiers in service of the same frightening, hollowly glamorous atmosphere. But by continuing to relentlessly mine the same fundamentally limited descriptions of groupies and Schedule VI narcotics, The Weeknd risks coming off as bored as its debauched narrator.