How House of Balloons Changed R&B
Five years since its veiled release, a conversation about The Weeknd’s debut and its influence on contemporary pop music.
Abel Tesfaye wasn't always a familiar face. In March of 2011, when he released House of Balloons—five years ago today—little was known about the entity then only known as The Weeknd. Was it one person, or a group? Maybe the album, as many speculated, was a passion project from a more established artist? Half a decade later, we have the answers to these questions. Beyond the album's initial mystique, it has—in the years since being introduced to the public—shifted the current pop landscape the way few debuts ever have.
Writer Sam Hockley-Smith joins FADER Canada editor Anupa Mistry and FADER senior writer Rawiya Kameir for a discussion about the initial rollout behind House of Balloons, how the album provided a new framework for music, the excess of youth culture, and why every Weeknd album since still must be measured against his drug-dazed debut.
Anupa Mistry: The level of fame that Abel Tesfaye is currently experiencing is still so insane to me, because the rollout and aftermath of House of Balloons was unprecedented in music and for Toronto. That period of time is very clear in my mind. It was less than a year after Thank Me Later, and I remember feeling quite viscerally the disdain for Canadian hip-hop and R&B noticeably waning: outsiders started to get curious about what was going on up here, locals were rallying around a new civic identity.
We all sit around on Saturday evenings for OVO Sound Radio these days, but Drake was always curating—remember his blog? That's how I first encountered The Weeknd. As the clamor around the mixtape escalated to a full-on roar and as Tesfaye became a conversation point between friends, I began to put the pieces together: he’d been recording at Dream House Studios on Bulwer with Doc McKinney (who was a key Esthero collaborator); my homegirl briefly worked with him at American Apparel and said he'd sometimes play his music—though no one knew it was him—and tracks had been floating around on YouTube. The performance for the University of Toronto's Black Students Association popped up on YouTube, but other than that he wasn't, like, doing open mics or that kind of thing. It was strange to have someone achieve international acclaim without grinding it out like a lot of people had in the city for years.
House of Balloons was up for a Polaris Music Prize in 2011. I was on the Prize's Grand Jury that year so I spent a lot of time listening to it, and the other nominees, including Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. They'd won a Grammy for that record: it was clearly a fan favorite and the kind of grandiose statement rock album that used to define (white) Canadian identity. It's essentially navel gaze-y nostalgia—good and bad—for the banality of suburbs and it's a fine record but, as I listened to them both, I kept thinking about how Balloons was making a similar, parallel statement, about the city and the present. I'd walk around Kensington Market and Queen West and the U of T campus listening to it, absorbing this story that's actually imbued with so much self-loathing and love-hate for the excess of youth and the restless boredom that city life can also breed. The album was documenting a nascent scene that has gone on to shift the cultural paradigm of Toronto, and it did so through a sound that has had a lasting effect on contemporary pop music.
Sam Hockley-Smith: Like Anupa, I first encountered House of Balloons through the October's Very Own blog. It was one of those weird things where it was never super clear who actually was looking at that blog. It always felt like a lifeline in an era of blogging that was more about discovering new artists than it was about coming up with any kind of concrete opinion about these artists (the OVO blog was an obvious precursor for Drake's long-running obsession with putting his stamp on new artists before anyone else). But my opinion on The Weeknd arrived fully formed. This was music I'd been looking for: a lurid, unblinking look at the loneliness of partying late night without glamorizing it. Like Drake, Tesfaye is really good at making sadness a commodity. This is probably going to annoy someone, somewhere, but Kurt Cobain was also very good at this, only he didn't embrace his talent for making depression appealing. Being lonely and sleazy and sort of a dark dude was actually embraced by Tesfaye as not just an occasional feeling, but an actual way of life. Remember when he talked about dreading the feeling of happiness in the New York Times?
The album, for me, was all—100%, 1000%!—about “Glass Table Girls,” the second half of the third track on the tape, and one that distilled every Weeknd cliche into one song: cocaine, all-night parties, and the unique feeling of complete and utter loneliness that comes with looking around at the world you've created for yourself after partying nonstop. In this world, sunrises are not beautiful, they're gross and they taste like stale drugs and bad decisions. It is close to perfect in that it does all the things people hate Tesfaye for doing. Listening to it will make you feel gross. A song that can evoke a feeling so palpable deserves attention.
Any act of myth-making involves pulling from pre-existing sources, dialing in on a zeitgeist and then expanding it into an entire universe. House of Balloons was so successful at doing that, that everything else Tesfaye did until “Can't Feel My Face” was measured against that earlier work. He'd probably view that as a burden, but I look at it as the ultimate artistic statement—accident or not.
“Sometimes repeated imitation is what leads to evolution; The Weeknd may have been the genesis of a specific sound, but he’s not its best vocalist or songwriter.” —Rawiya Kameir
Rawiya Kameir: One of the biggest questions when House of Balloons dropped was: what R&B singer’s anonymous project is this? It was inconceivable that an unknown artist would launch their career this way and it sounded like it could’ve been multiple guys, so theories abounded and interest peaked—sort of like what's happening these days with dvsn, another OVO-affiliated project with an unnamed vocalist. In addition to the style of the songs themselves, it felt like House of Balloons presented a new framework for music discovery, a new way for artists to engage with the media cycle.
To some extent, especially to people adjacent to Toronto’s music industry, Balloons was understood to be Doc’s personal project; guys around the city had claimed to have worked with him on similar-sounding R&B projects around the same time. That idea was eventually nullified, but for all of the personality and behavior that’s ascribed to The Weeknd—the drugs, the so-called “rape-y” lyrics, the antisocial tendencies—it wasn’t until much more recently that he was acknowledged having any real auteurial intent. It’s wild to think that it’s already been five has since HoB’s release. It’s even wilder to consider the trajectory of his career in that time span. The Weeknd was ushered into the pop music landscape under the bullshit guise of “alt-R&B” and I often wonder what role that played in shaping his identity in the public’s imagination. Anupa, what do you remember about that era regarding how R&B was talked about? How did—or how does—The Weeknd intersect with that?
Anupa: I am pretty obsessed with dvsn right now, and I know that a lot of it has to do with his (their?) songs being the kind of clean, quiet storm vibe that's directly counter to the seismically-processed sound the Weeknd popularized. I don't mean that as a dis at all, because even Abel is off that. What do I remember about the time when the Weeknd popped? A lot of pseudo-derisive commentary from people who had no idea how weird R&B had been in the neo-soul era (and prior), and a lot of positioning of Abel—as well as Frank Ocean—as the saviors of modern soul. I don't want to downplay the super intoxicating alchemy of sounds and Tesfaye's obvious vocal talent—“Loft Music" does this perfectly for me; the song's first half feels like collapsing slow motion into a massive, plush hotel bed.
But if we're going to talk about why HoB prompted a shift in the way R&B was talked about I'd like to put the onus back on the critics and the consumers: what was it in those themes—that Sam has set up really well—that made the Weeknd so palatable to fans but also people whose critical take was that it's “alt?” I know Kurt was on the right side of personal politics but I actually really like that parallel, at least with regard to HoB, because both artists hit on a particular wounded, kind of perverse, strain of male ennui.
Sam's right: fans have such a tight grip on the sound and intent of HoB that everything that's come after has been received as lesser than. The snark surrounding Beauty Behind The Madness, which is really quite good, is that it’s a “pop” record and energetically out of alignment with the Weeknd's “brand.” HoB is a pillar record, but the self-destructive lifestyle that birthed it is unsustainable. Ultimately, Abel is not Kurt. I don't want that for him, and I don't think he wants it for himself. Sam, Rawiya: what is House of Balloons legacy? Does it get the recognition it deserves for keeping our inboxes filled with mixtapes by whiny, auto-tuned R&B dudes? And, ooh, what did you think it got wrong?
Sam: It's telling that to become really and truly successful—in the 2016 pop music sense of the word—Tesfaye had to largely abandon the existential malaise that made people care about him in the first place, or at least cloak it in less dour instrumentals. Even so, Balloons' legacy is massive. It looms large over everything we've heard. It made happy songs passe. It made the very concept of contentment seem lame. It spawned a vast legion of imitators, all tracing song lyrics in mounds of cocaine on mirrors at 6 a.m. It was a fashionable version of depression, done very well. That sounds disparaging, but I don't want it to be. House of Balloons got everything right, which is why it caused such a seismic shift in music.
So it's not really about what Balloons got wrong, it's just that everyone, Tesfaye included, spent so much time trying to replicate the unsustainable emotional state that record fostered that they forgot that for sadness, loneliness, anger—whatever—to be palatable, it needs to be played off of some other feelings. Does perpetual nihilism offer a chance for redemption? Can you even see redemption when you're so deep in it? The unfortunate fact of House of Balloons is that its imitators mistook sadness for depth.
What I still can't figure out about the album, though, is how to avoid this sort of destructive imitation. What do you do when the art you make arrives so fully formed that it becomes a blueprint for copycats? That's not Tesfaye's fault. It's maybe a little bit our fault for committing so instantly to the world he presented. I look at all these people that took the barest skeleton of a sound and ran amok with it, and I wonder: do they know that they're imitating? Or does it all feel new? Were so many artists so out of touch with their feelings that it took The Weeknd to allow them to feel okay about looking at their darker sides? Maybe they're not doing that. Maybe they recognize the concept of that state, minus the actual feelings associated with it, like advanced robots.
Where does this sound go? Can it go anywhere now? Or is it just going to be rammed even harder into the ground until we can't take it anymore? Does this kind of imitation lessen the impact or quality—assuming you think it's good—of HoB?
Rawiya: Drugs aren’t new to R&B or hip-hop—pills, coke, lean, weed, whatever, have been a presence in black music for decades. But, for complex socio-cultural reasons that are worthy of a discussion of their own, the post-rap narrative has always positioned the black man as distributor, not consumer, of hard drugs. I’ve always thought one of the things that made people cling to the Weeknd—especially critics and publications that were just then beginning to cover R&B, often in the reductive ways you’ve both referred to Sam—was that he firmly, publicly centered himself as a drug user on House of Balloons.
I don’t do drugs and neither do a lot of my friends, so “Loft Music” and “Glass Table Girls" never sounded like parties I wanted to be at. That’s probably why I wasn’t a huge fan of the project when it came out. I liked a couple of songs, I liked that it was, in theory, trying to present an aesthetic as an idea. But it wasn’t until Beauty Behind the Madness last year that I finally became something of a fan—the Weeknd’s still sad as hell, except the backdrop of his nihilism is arena tours, supermodel girlfriends, clingy friends.
Sometimes repeated imitation is what leads to evolution; he may have been the genesis of a specific sound, but he’s not its best vocalist or songwriter. After watching the surprise OVO performances at FADER FORT in Austin this past weekend, I actually feel good about where post-Weeknd R&B has ended up: projects fronted by men, for men—and I use that descriptor loosely—don’t have to be harsh and gloomy to pop off.