8.5/10 – The Weeknd explores the many avenues for his incredible voice and unique style on his satisfying third album.
When I first heard “House of Balloons” back in 2012, I knew it was only a short matter of time before most of the world knew who The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) was. His insistence to remain in the shadows for so long slowed his inevitable journey to the mainstream. Had he gone a route similar to, let’s say Bruno Mars, he’d be much more famous than he is right now, and his music possibly much worse. His voice is undeniably great, but what set him apart was his subject matter and dedication to sticking to what he knows. Describing late night forays into the deepest recesses of hedonism at clubs with too many drugs. It wasn’t all glorification of the lifestyle, he sings frequently about “the comedown” but even at his darkest it still sounds appealing. Such is the power of his voice.
For his latest release, Abel took his time, drawing inspiration from much larger personalities and grandiose, pop-oriented musical styles. He hasn’t crossed over entirely, but his summer filled with 3 massive hits has made him to start making the transition. As much as he wants to stay in the shadows, his talent is dragging him into the mainstream, and this album proves that he’s mostly ready for it.
Abel and his returning team of producers including Illangelo, Billions, and Danny Boy Styles guide Tesfaye out of his comfort zone while retaining his signature sound. Songs like, “Often”, “Acquainted”, and “Tell Your Friends” are more of what we’re used to, in a good way. Especially the Kanye West produced “Tell Your Friends”, a deeply personal reflection of Tesfaye’s humble beginnings. The jazzy piano work in the background from Kanye is the perfect accompaniment.
The first half of the album is about as strong as it gets. You’ve heard each of these songs at least once in the last month. “Can’t Feel My Face” is a catchy disco/pop smash and song of the summer, “Earned It” is the new template for new age R&B ballads (until Frank Ocean resurfaces), and “The Hills” finds him deftly oscillating between half-lucid, intoxicated delivery and falsetto bravado. The hit singles and definite standouts on the album.
The second half of the album suffers from over indulgence on concepts that don’t work nearly as well. Switching from the funky, unpredictable groove of the first half for a lot of slower ballads and awkward duets. Except for “In the Night” which is Abel doing Michael Jackson about as well as you can do it. It’s the sole bright spot in the slowed down, meandering last 5 songs.
Ed Sheeran tries his best on “Dark Times” but the contrasting vocal styles are too different and the song is underwhelming to begin with. “Prisoner” with Lana Del Ray works much better, both for the content and better pairing between the two singers. But again, The Weeknd’s voice is just way too powerful and eclipses whoever he’s next to rather than complimenting them.
Lastly, while I’m used to the extended, free flowing nature of The Weeknd’s albums, songs sometimes float into the ether and go on too long, it feels at odds with a lot of the tighter, bouncier, mass appeal pop songs on display here. It’s effective when it adds to the drug-fueled nature of the song, setting the mood of instability and unpredictability, letting songs drift into one another so your not really sure how high he is and as he says “Time don’t exist”. He takes a similar approach but in a lot of the songs here it comes off as self-indulgent and extends songs that have seemingly nothing left to add. “Angel” is so over the top it’s hard to believe it’s one of his songs, “As you are” starts off solid but drones on and on, and even “Acquainted” feels like it could be 2 minutes shorter
Overall, this is his most mainstream, interesting album to date, it sounds like a Weeknd is starting to find his footing and realizing he possesses incredible star potential. There are always going to be growing pains as an artist progresses, and BBTM at times can feel like it’s trying to keep too many balls in the air as it mixex Toronto club legend with burgeoning international pop star. That being said, the album is thoroughly entertaining and satisfying even when it doesn’t work completely.
BBTM has me wanting to see more from The Weeknd, and leads me to believe that his best music is yet to come. Until then, we have the album of the summer.