It was just over two years ago that the world was struggling to figure out who The Weeknd was: wait, so they’re a group? But in the short time since we learned The Weeknd was, despite what grammar might suggest, really just one guy named Abel Tesfaye, it’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s fundamentally helped change the sound of modern R&B.
In sharp contrast to the early 2000s polished, uptempo and six-packed style (think Usher, 112, etc.), The Weeknd ushered in an age of R&B drowning in underwater distortion, regret-fueled sex, and enough prescription pills to tranquilize a baby elephant. And with Drake building the bandwagon and then inviting all of rap onto it, The Weeknd’s become increasingly influential in hip-hop as well. From an unknown kid from Toronto to one of the most influential people in music; not too shabby, huh?
In a true sign of the times, he’s done it all without an album. Or, more accurately, he’s done it all with three free albums that have been called mixtapes because, you know what, the semantics don’t matter. What matters is that The Weeknd is now a major label player, and said label (Republic) has packaged all three projects—House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence—added on some new material, and just like that The Weeknd has a debut “album,” the aptly-titled Trilogy.
Now, there’s still a large swath of America who has never heard The Weeknd, but I suspect that most of the people reading this review are well versed in Abel’s brand of narco-R&B, so let’s use this review both as a chance to specifically review Trilogy and delve into the musical phenomenon that is The Weeknd.
There’s no better place to start than with "High for This," the track that I’m guessing served as in introduction to The Weeknd for most. (Either that or "Loft Music.") It’s hard to remember now, but at the time there was a real “oh sh*t, I’ve never hard anything quite like this” element to "High For This." Abel’s vocals managed to be simultaneously raw and smooth, while the production fluctuated between gauzy verses and a jittering, pounding chorus: call it the fix and the comedown. That dysfunctional elegance would quickly establish itself as The Weeknd’s trademark style. On the surface, "Wicked Games" is laid back but there are notes of menace in the bass line, and it’s hard to imagine something like “bring the drugs, baby, I could bring the pain” ever coming out of Trey Songz’ mouth. From Balloons to Silence, the same self-destructive streak paced throughout the music, culminating in the nihilism of "The Fall," "XO/The Host" and the almost frightening "The Initiation."
While Trilogy showcases a fiercely new voice in R&B, nothing springs from nothingness. (You might have to be high to catch that last sentence.) More simply put, it’s not hard to tease out The Weeknd’s influences—most obviously Michael Jackson. D.D. finds Abel covering "Dirty Diana," MJ’s warning about the dangers of groupie love, teasing out every bit of pain and regret he can squeeze from the original. But while D.D. is powerful, the MJ-influence is most easily felt when the pace slows to a crawl. "Coming Down"’s rising falsettos and breathy delivery are laden with echoes of Mike. Or, if you’d rather get specific, just listen to the way Abel ends his notes with a sharp inhale on the bridge of "Twenty Eight" (1:37 – 1:44). He may have chopped and distorted and muddied and run MJ’s music through a blender, but the original ingredients are all still detectable.
Ultimately, Trilogy is more of a sonic landmark then it is a new work. Let’s be real, very few will purchase a 160-minute album they could otherwise essentially get for free (minus Trilogy’s three new tracks). No, Trilogy is more of an anthology, a greatest hits collection where nearly every song The Weeknd’s ever made is a greatest hit, than an album in the traditional sense. But landmarks are important, they allow us to measure the distance between two points, to compare the past to the present (and future).
House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence are now officially the past. Trilogy is the present. And the future is The Weeknd’s to take.