Review Summary: Thursday may not be immediately enjoyable. It lacks the memorable hooks and immediate production of its predecessor. And it's a better album for it.
Even though House of Balloons
, the Weeknd's two free albums– I'm hesitant to call these mixtapes– are quite different topically and sonically, they begin similarly. Abel Tesfaye, 21-year-old vocalist and pure hedonist, is on the prowl. On House of Balloons
' "High for This", he's seducing a girl and getting her to roll ecstasy for the first time. Tesfaye's insistance– "Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this"– is a purely sexual motive. "We'll be good," he promises, "We'll be so good". So begins House of Balloons
, a self-aware journey into Tesfaye's addictions to drugs, sex, and fame. His nonchalant treatment of the topics and his knowledge of his destructive capabilities ("The Knowing", anyone"), were fresh, awe-inspiring, and at times, terrifying. And it was all laced inside some of the most mind-blowing R&B production we've heard in years.
begins, and indeed continues, in a considerably more nuanced manner. Instead of seducing for sexual pleasure, Tesfaye seems to want to bring his prey, the "Lonely Star", down for the kill. He promises "the cars, the clothes, the dreams, the sex, the house." Her friends are irrelevant; her vices are her, and Tesfaye's, best friends. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the proposition, however, is the agreement between the two. The "Lonely Star" becomes Tesfaye's Thursday girl, "not on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday." She gives a little monologue in the middle of the song, where she says, "One day I'll love you, and you'll remember me. When you *** them, you'll see my face."
That's the key nuance. Where House of Balloons
focused on Tesfaye's sheer hedonism and addiction to his fast life, Thursday is focused on the destructive relationships he creates, and in particular, the relationship with "Lonely Star". We get to that day "Lonely Star" warns of in "The Birds", a two-part suite that finds the Thursday girl falling in love and consequently falling apart. "I'm just another bird," sings Tesfaye. In the hands of most singers, the hook of "Part One"– "Don't make me make you fall in love with a ni**a like me,"– is a taunt, but with Tesfaye, it's a plea. Yet she does fall in love, and even begs on her knees in "Part Two", but Tesfaye alienates her. By the end of the mixtape, we're back where we started: Tesfaye on the prowl.
It's a compelling narrative, one that brings structure and cohesion to the album. Unfortunately, if you're not reading along, or you don't have a great ear for reverberated and distorted vocals, you're going to miss it. Unlike House of
Balloons, which centered itself around huge choruses with anthemic hooks, the vocals and hooks take a backseat to atmosphere on Thursday
. It makes Thursday
seem disappointing in comparison to House of Balloons
, as it is not nearly as viscerally enjoyable. We can criticize Thursday for lacking the immediately enjoyable qualities of its predecessor, but to do so ignores the musical purpose of the album. This is clearly not an album made for the catchy hooks; instead, producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo focus on the musical embodiment of Tesfaye's themes. It's almost as if the music came as a consequence of the lyrics, even though it likely worked the other way around.
There's the monstrous, foreboding intro and hook riff in "Life of the Party" that seems to foreshadow the path Tesfaye takes his woman down as he invites her to "go downtown with the drugs in [her] body." There's the echoes in Tesfaye's hook on "The Zone", making his line "I'mma touch you" all the more predatory and forceful. There's "Heaven or Las Vegas"'s weird, reggae-influenced production that seems to place Tesfaye in a place of comfort as he restfully concludes, "I say, I got heaven/ Well I say, I am God." There's "Gone"'s long, meandering middle section where Tesfaye's auto-tuned, produced voice floats almost entirely a cappella, accompanied by finger snaps in the beginning of the section. It recalls Kanye's auto-tuned catharsis on "Runaway", except where Kanye puts all of his energy into his release, Tesfaye has almost nothing to give, an opposite but equally effective device.
These moments are subtle, and it takes a different mindset to appreciate them than it took to appreciate House of Balloons
. But Thursday
might be, in the end, the more rewarding album of the two. A week into listening, I'm still discovering brilliant moments of cohesion between the production and the narrative. Where my repeated listens to House of Balloons
are based on desires of immediate pleasure– hearing the beat drop on "High for This", the chorus in "House of Balloons", or Tesfaye's moment of triumph on "The Knowing". Re-listening to Thursday
is a process of immersion, of following the trail that Tesfaye blazes. Indeed, these listening patterns closely parallel the treatment of Tesfaye's themes between the two albums; House of Balloons
focuses on the immediate moment while Thursday
tells a broader narrative. Listening to something like Thursday
is the ultimate form of escapism that so many of us flock to music for. That's a quality that should be celebrated, not criticized for its lack of immediate pleasure.