“You don’t know what’s in store.” In 2011, the lead line from House of Balloons introduced us to The Weeknd. Fast forward ten years and it’s no question that The Weeknd has had a huge effect on the music industry. The 80s influenced single, ‘Blinding Lights’, is a masterpiece that cements his place in commercial music today. A critically acclaimed album, critics like NME’s Luke Morgan Britton and Variety’s Jem Aswad agreed that After Hours was his strongest work yet.
However, we can’t forget that The Weeknd’s first venture was just as innovative. 10 years ago, an anonymous Abel Makkonen Tesfaye released his first mixtape, House of Balloons, online. 2011 was a time ripe at the beginning of the blog era. We had just started downloading Instagram and a red headed Rihanna was on every teenage boy’s T-shirt. Without streaming, people relied on music blogs to discover new music. Prior to House of Balloons’ release, in 2010, Drake posted a link to two of The Weeknd’s tracks on his own blog, OVO (October’s Very Own). The buzz only grew from there. Fans of The Weeknd’s style had already started to emerge when House of Balloons eventually dropped, available for free to download later. It changed the nature of R&B music as we knew it.
We got a sense of what House of Balloons was supposed to sound like from the artwork. It had black and white visuals and dingy tiles in a grungy bathroom. Strategically placed balloons surrounded a woman, just enough to show her collarbones and breasts. This wasn’t supposed to be a pretty sounding mixtape, like the clean, smooth R&B we were used to.
Take ‘High For This’, the opener. The line “you wanna be high for this” was either drug, sex or music related. R&B has always been sensual, but the open allusion to MDMA culture was a fresh take on the genre. A ringing sound crescendos, becoming muffled as it leads into the vocals, setting a ghostly, sinister tone. “You don’t know / what’s in store”. The beat then drops, quivering synths and drums lead into the chorus. The actual instrumental isn’t actually in an R&B style; it is loosely drum and bass in tone.
Tesfaye has said in the past that the only part of his music resembling R&B were his vocals.
“The only thing R&B about my shit is the style of singing. My inspiration is … Michael Jackson, and Prince, for the vocals anyway. My production… is not inspired by R&B at all.”
Still, Tesfaye’s vocals are so strong that their blend with the production created a different style of R&B altogether. It’s hard not to hear Michael Jackson’s influence in his voice. As the beat drops, his falsettos and belts mark the track with soulful tinges. Of course, Jackson was a pop artist, but Tesfaye uses impressive riffs and runs that personify R&B. On the best track, ‘Wicked Games’, we hear cheating, depression and fame. The defeatism is endless. “Just tell me you love me / even though you don’t love me.” Textbook R&B makes you feel, and Tesfaye’s wavering vocals certainly made listeners feel compassion and sadness. It was still refreshing, as he showed us the reality of stardom. “Bring your body baby / I can bring you fame.” This was an ugly side to R&B, never seen before.
This changed the genre forever, giving way to the ‘Alternative R&B’ controversy. Artists such as FKA Twigs have made their distaste for ‘Alternative R&B’ plain, noting that if they weren’t black or mixed race, their music wouldn’t be labelled as such. Frank Ocean prefers to be known as a singer/songwriter instead, pointing out that black musicians are called R&B artists just for creating music somewhat similar to the genre. We see this today with The Weeknd. After recently being snubbed by The Grammys, speculation occurred that his lack of nomination was due to confusion where to categorise his music – pop or R&B?
Similarly, some questioned if House of Balloons was truly an R&B project. Was the label attached as Tesfaye was young, black and male? House of Balloons wasn’t like anything we had heard – but people forget that music is designed to evolve. Contemporary rhythm and blues sounds different compared to 1970s disco influenced R&B. House of Balloons had tropes like sex and relationships, rich vocals and compact beats, defining it as R&B. ‘What You Need’ is a good example of this.
The original track used a sample from Aaliyah’s ‘Rock The Boat’. When later making it available for streaming, they couldn’t clear the sample, so it wasn’t used on The Trilogy. It’s evident from the sample that ‘What You Need’ is an R&B track. Aaliyah’s vocals repeat “Baby now hold me close”, setting a sexier mood, in typical R&B fashion. Smooth and sultry in style, snapping beats continue under provocative, confident lyrics. “He’s what you want / I’m what you need, what you need, what you need.” House of Balloons experimented with R&B, but ‘What You Need’ showed that it wasn’t a total diversion from the genre.
The Weeknd has revolutionised music; it’s been a privilege to watch his content evolve. After Hours was commercial music that still sounded fresh. Looking back at 2011, this isn’t a new phenomenon, he has always made trailblazing content. After listening to the original House of Balloons, it’s clear that The Weeknd changed the essence of R&B forever. Ten years on, I’m confident that it will continue to last the test of time.
Words by Rosh Ilyas
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