by Patrick Preziosi
It’s important to remember that The Weeknd and House of Balloons were first. Before Take Care, dvsn, PartyNextDoor, “Passionfruit”; before an impossibly disproportionate Drake sat on the CN Tower; before the now recognizable OVO Sound traits, before American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and others bastardized its then scandalously chic cover art, there was a free mixtape that materialized as a .zip file on March 21st, 2011, at the peak of file sharing within the R&B/rap underground, by an anonymous-as-could-be singer no less, whose sampling appetite included Beach House, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Aaliyah (whose “Rock the Boat” later found itself scrubbed from House of Balloons’ major-label rerelease). The lustful and debauched lyrics––nocturnal stories of hard drug use and loveless sex––made Toronto seem like the scariest place in the world. As catchy as it was pretentious, House of Balloons got a Drake circa-Thank Me Later seal of approval in the form of a cosign, and had its download link posted multiple times on Donald Glover’s Tumblr, IAmDonald, where it was in the similar company of the Mediafire/Datpiff acolytes like Danny Brown and Odd Future that Glover revered, as well as his own (also free) music as Childish Gambino.
Narcotized R&B is an industry unto itself these days, but no one’s ever gotten close to Abel Tesfaye’s mercurial sound, where conventional song structures are largely eschewed, even as each song still houses a good handful of entirely different earworm hooks. Its sound was a shoo-in for fawning puff pieces, courtesy of The Fader, SPIN, Pitchfork and more, even though not all were convinced: Pitchfork’s Nitsuh Abebe dismissed the tape as “listless crap”, and wondered aloud why singles like Jamie Foxx and Drake’s “Fall for Your Type” weren’t met with similar acclaim, a statement that in retrospect marks the precise point at which pop music leapt over the precipice into indie-baiting, atmospheric instrumentals. From Take Care on (released in the fall of the same year), The Weeknd was practically Drake and in-house producer Noah “40” Shebib’s North Star. In an interview for Complex in 2013, Tesfaye’s first ever, the singer intimated that, “[Drake] said he wouldn’t be able to do the album [Take Care] without me,” also revealing that “Crew Love”, “The Ride” and “Shot for Me” were all supposed to be additions to House of Balloons’ nine song tracklist.
House of Balloons also catalyzed a remarkable run of same-year mixtapes, with Thursday following in August, and Echoes of Silence capping off the trilogy late that December (“Crew Love” came in the interim of those latter two). Matching prolificity with a peerless aesthetic, The Weeknd left little time in between projects to pine for more, which is perhaps what made his debut “album”, 2013’s Kiss Land, such a laborious listen, treading the water of the trilogy’s established sound, and occasionally sinking. 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness attempted just what it says on the box, swinging more for hits (“I Can’t Feel My Face”, “The Hills”) than mood, and 2017’s Starboy attempted crossover via Daft Punk-lite collaborations. After Hours, the most successful album Tesfaye has put out since Echoes of Silence, benefits from the reintroduction of the characteristics he’d honed across the trilogy, even if he traded multi-song suites for coked-out superstar aspirations, resulting in smash hits like the omnipresent “Blinding Lights”.
The trilogy is woefully underrepresented on the recent greatest hits compilation, The Highlights, but House of Balloons’ quasi title track, the bifurcated, Siouxsie Sioux sampling “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” fit in surprisingly well with The Weeknd’s recent Super Bowl Halftime show. Sure, he chose the most benign lyric to repeat over the drum breakdown (“this is fun to me”), but there was something thrilling about seeing that mostly-absent potency rearing its head again, even if it was bookended by some inoffensive crowd-pleasers. House of Balloons, despite its luxuriously big-budget sound, has more in common with the simmering intensity that manifested on many projects released in this brief period where the underground chipped its way into the mainstream with little more than a download link. The world was introduced to the apocalyptic bellows of Death Grips’ MC Ride just the following month, with the release of Exmilitary; Danny Brown’s XXX came that August, with one of the most despairing side-Bs to ever come attached with a side-A overflowing with giggly innuendo and an ecstatic appetite for drugs. And although The Weeknd’s pyschosexual drug fantasies were delivered under the supple cover of R&B, it came on the heels of Odd Future’s first few incendiary mixtapes: on Tyler, The Creator’s Bastard and Earl Sweatshirt’s Earl, the two rappers distilled a history of horrorcore and Eminem circa-Relapse worship into some terrifyingly––if regressive––visceral songs, whose lyrical content would slot in pretty comfortably with the actual verses of “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls”, understandably not performed during a major television event. Still, the inclusion of the song was the overdue equivalent of seeing Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats do “Sandwitches” on Jimmy Fallon, only about a decade removed.
The Weeknd wasn’t just beholden to his contemporaries who gleefully embraced the horrorcore labeling; the overarching sound is one of quiet-storm maturity, occasionally ruptured with militaristic drums and electric guitars (both instruments would inch closer to the forefront on Thursday). 2011 not only saw the advent of lo-fi hip-hop and cloud rap, but what’s now known as “bedroom pop” as well, and House of Balloons’ modern reinterpretation of pop music is comparable to How to Dress Well, and his favorite sample source, Beach House; even his now-favorite producer, Oneohtrix Point Never, had a similar 2011, with the release of Replica. The production team of Doc McKinney and Illangelo hopscotch from Clams Casino smeariness, to The xx’s superlative employment of carved-out silence, to the spaced-out missives of Oakland’s Main Attrakionz; The only mixtape from that year that could come close would be A$AP Rocky’s proudly regionless Live.Love.A$AP, which looked more towards Houston than it did Harlem. In a year where it was en vogue to ignore all the trappings of musical boundaries, House of Balloons is as staunchly multivalenced as any record––much less a debut––could be.
House of Balloons opens with a warning, and then a set of instructions: “you don’t know what’s in store… you wanna be high for this.” A chilly Michael Jackson impersonation slowly drowning in pockets of industrial squall, Tesfaye’s performance on this opener is a mission statement––drug-induced scatalogy conflated with violent self-loathing and paranoia, natch.––coalescing under the cover of poetic come-ons that even at their most mystical, still reek of lechery. This high-concept debasement can skirt mythologization, but Tesfaye presents himself as if he’s some kind of unannounced intruder, appearing out the ether to compound the bad trip even further, or, in his words: “we don’t need no protection.” Were all of House of Balloons this luridly dramatic it’d be nigh insufferable.
Enter “What You Need”. Composed of pockets of deep silence intercut with some of The Weeknd’s most veritably lovely instrumentation, the single is cool to the touch, still rife with Tesfaye’s interloping characteristics: “does he touch you there like this?”; “He’s what you want, I’m what you need.” I still prefer the mixtape version, which wedded the original backing track to that aforementioned Aaliyah sample effortlessly, but it’s a testament to the trio’s rich palette that “What You Need” still stands sturdy enough sans “Rock the Boat”. Lest House of Balloons fall back upon a particular strand of R&B redolent with “negative space”––a straight line can be drawn from “What You Need” to Jeremih’s Late Nights: The Album (2015) the supreme document of this informal subgenre––“House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” comes next, riding that warped, descending Siouxsie Soux belt, before collapsing into the drill and bass adjacent back half, where Tesfaye flaunts a surprisingly natural rap cadence, where he swaps the pomp of the preceding four minutes for a discomfiting, Master of Ceremonies-esque verse.
Soon enough Tesfaye offers another warning: “gotta slow down, she’ll feel it in the morning.” Probably House of Balloons’ prettiest song, “The Morning” builds itself around a showy and sparkling guitar lead and panning synths, before the beat drop lands the song into its incantation-like chorus. It starts by narrating the hitherto hedonistic lifestyle (“complaints from the tenets / got the walls kicking like they’re six months pregant”; “codeine cups paint a picture so vivid”), before some petty paranoia begins to bubble up, emboldened only further by the repeated “look at all that money, the money is the motive.” “Wicked Games” continues this particularly egotistical self-loathing with one of The Weeknd’s most immortalized lyrics, where he confesses, “I left my girl back home / I don’t love her no more / and she’ll never fucking know that.” The title implies some malevolent work at force, which, when taken in concert with the lyrics, probably means trying and failing to fuck the pain away. Tesfaye plays choir to his own miserabilia, offset only by the song’s accessibility.
“The Party & The After Party” crests atop a tinny sample of Beach House’s “Master of None”, as Tesfaye rattles off the come-ons once again, although him and his partner for the night’s lucidity wavers the closer they get back to her house, and the track follows suit, 808s dropping out, backing vocals growing woozier, the guitar more violently plucked. From this altered state, he becomes a truly awful houseguest: “I think I’m fuckin’ gone, rollin’ on this floor /Messin’ up your carpet, I’ll get on it after four more.” The appropriately titled “Coming Down” comes next, an icy soundscape that houses some of Tesfaye’s most impressive vocal runs, even if he’s narrating a comedown that’d be more at home on a Spacemen 3 record than any contemporary R&B release.
Atop yet another Beach House sample––this time a pitched-up stutter pulled from Devotion’s “Gila”––Tesfaye reprises his flow from “Glass Table Girls” for “Loft Music”. Arguably House of Balloons’ catchiest cut, the song still features the now-signature switchup, the rakish crooner of the first half (“rehearse lines to them / and then we fuck faces”, “I’m only fuckin’ 20 girl”) suddenly drowning in a slo-mo whirlpool of ghostly falsetto and ambient textures. This bottoming out bridges seamlessly into closer “The Knowing” where all the penned-up distrust melts into bonafide––if still slightly villainous––heartbreak. Fuzzy guitars and “Cherry Coloured Funk” snippets color Tesfaye’s most Michael Jackson-indebted performance, his voice intensely quivering with each questionable self-aggrandizing admission, all building to the glorious finish. If the catharsis is unearned, it at least provides a tantalizing dissonance, a brief moment of identification with a veritably scummy character.
I was 13 when I first heard House of Balloons, a particularly omnivorous listening age, that––with the absolute glut of free new music that was dropping across platforms weekly––sustained itself long after 2011. Coming off the high of a 2010 spent discovering new favorites (Titus Andronicus and Kanye West’s respective releases of that year blew the doors wide open), I was obsessively frequenting music blogs, and was downloading anything and everything that Donald Glover posted on his Tumblr, which of course led to Odd Future, and then The Weeknd. Odd Future were electrifyingly coarse, and Childish Gambino’s own gaudiness could at least be attributed to his status as an actor and comedian. The Drake connect notwithstanding, the sudden appearance of such a perfectly arranged mixtape, replete with adventurous divergences and immaculate instrumentals induced vertigo, at least for a teenager used to the casual, baggy tapes of those such as Das Racist or SpaceGhostPurrp.
It’s been hard to gauge Tesfaye’s relationship to the mixtape trilogy, especially House of Balloons. In a Pitchfork interview in 2015, the singer made the reasonable comparison of the tape to the experimental temperament of Prince, while also expressing a certain weariness at the demand for a continuation of the specific sound: “Why can’t I try something that challenges me as an artist?” he genuinely asked, in regard to his newer, poppier work. Only for The Weeknd would the challenge be to experiment less.
Still, “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” did make the Superbowl cut, and Tesfaye even played himself––circa 2012––in the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019), where he was still small enough to play small, exclusive club shows, but self-aware enough of himself and his audience that he was hot shit. Sporting the same haircut and fashion sense that cropped up in the very limited press materials of the era, his performance of “The Morning” is almost a dip into the uncanny valley, Tesfaye conjuring up his older self blemish free; there’s the apparent desire to maintain the same sense of cultish mystery of the time, while also still presenting a pop persona in the vein of his beloved Michael Jackson. Tesfaye is a one-man hit factory at this point, and even if House of Balloons’ inclusion in this smattering of chart-toppers is still cursory at best, it’s represented nevertheless. It’s a work which’d be impossible to have a clear-cut relationship with, because of its warring sexiness and violence, a catchy brand of otherwise off-putting megalomania. How does one either live up to it or live it down? Part of the thrill of following The Weeknd since has been watching Tesfaye attempt to succeed at both.