Review Summary: This isn't a happy house.House of Balloons
is some seriously filthy
sex music, the stuff of grimy nightclubs and their sleazy, dingy bathroom stalls. Not that this debut mixtape from The Weeknd sounds particularly scuzzy or ugly in any way. Far from it, in fact; this is some of the most polished stuff released this year. But these songs have a distinctively urban
quality about them, in a way that transcends the now-gentrified "urban" genre and shoots straight for actual city streets. Musically, House of Balloons
isn't particularly far removed from mainstream R&B, and what with its highly recognizable samples, it often does sound very familiar, but it's infused with unfiltered, unrestrained libido, eschewing glamour for something more sweaty and rough-edged...and that is very difficult to come by in this day and age of desexualized, mass-marketed product.
"You don't know what's in store, but you know what you're here for." Right from this opening line, The Weeknd set the stage with a titillating come-on against the backdrop of slow, lightly distorted beats. The effect is utterly intoxicating, at once visceral and luxuriant, and the production somehow manages to sound both claustrophobic and expansive. The same goes for the mixtape's titular track, which takes the riff of Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Happy House" and brilliantly lays it atop an enormous and hypnotic beat that's just a bit too slow to properly dance to. Once the song's cleverness wears off, its emotional heft sets in; in its new context, the cry of "this is a happy house" is less a joyous celebration than a desperate utterance, as if repeating the phrase over and over will somehow make it true. Underlying this is the knowledge, of course, that "House of Balloons" really isn't a pleasant place, and herein lies the conflict that drives the track forward.
So when The Weeknd choose to tread on more familiar hip-hop ground, as on "The Party & The After Party", it feels knowing and darkly humorous. Lyrics mentioning Louis Vuitton and high heel shoes are delivered in a despondent tone instead of a typically hedonistic one. Such an attitude can sometimes verge on being solipsistic, but The Weeknd wisely choose to simply opt for a pained and resigned outlook rather than a self-indulgently virtuous one. If they're lightly poking fun of contemporary party culture, they're also halfheartedly embracing it. There's a prevalent feeling of melancholy and self-loathing throughout much of House of Balloons
, not only in these references to trite hallmarks of modern-day hip-hop culture, but also in some of the mixtape's more explicitly sexual moments. The quietly arresting "Coming Down" is defined by its breathy, desolate coo of "I always want you when I'm coming down", and "What You Need" is a sultry, seductive track darkly colored by its longing chorus: "He's what you want / I'm what you need."
It's this emotional honesty that makes House of Balloons
as successful and addicting as it is. Much has been made about the mysterious background of The Weeknd, and how it remains unclear whether it's a solo project or a band. Certainly, The Weeknd's sudden appearance on the radars of outlets like Pitchfork, Disco Naïveté, and Drake's Twitter invites questions about the role of anonymity in music. After all, pop in the aughts has been dominated by outsize personalities, from the strangely arresting downward spirals of Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears to the agitprop art of M.I.A. and the attention-grabbing antics of Lady Gaga. But as the decade drew to a close and the Internet established itself as a permanent fixture in the music business, a new group of pop-influenced projects began to crop up. Many of them were immediately relegated to various pointless microgenres, but they often shared a common thread - they sprung up from near-anonymity and gained momentum with the help of blogs and social networks. It was refreshing, if only because it finally allowed for the artist to be separated almost entirely from the art, but it also begs the question: how much of the attention foisted upon these artists, of which The Weeknd are most certainly a member, was borne out of mere mystique, and how much of it was the result of legitimate interest in what still matters most, which is, of course, the music itself? Thankfully, when the work is as good as the gorgeous extended comedown of "Loft Music" or the aqueous groove of "The Morning" that question answers itself. With House of Balloons
, The Weeknd have confidently shown that their anonymity is but one small facet of their artistic existence by presenting music that stands on its own - and then some.