As a person who typically dislikes most things R&B it’s fair to say that I approached Abel Tesfaye’s entry mixtape, House of Balloons, with skepticism. And even though House of Balloons is - at its core - hedonistic, it veiled the most obvious stereotypes of its genre with meticulous production and Tesfaye’s angelic croons. Shortly thereafter, Thursday was released and helped expand on this potent blend by somewhat breaking away from the aesthetic of its predecessor to feel a little more emotionally resolute and, at times, kind of... creepy. As noted by many a reviewer, Thursday drew from a much darker atmosphere and thrived on its story-telling tendencies. Still though, both mixtapes come across as filthy, grimy sex music on the surface, but there’s something undeniably emotive about them. Beneath Tesfaye’s walls of drug-addled sexism lies a dangerously self-destructive person (“The Knowing”) - one who - knowingly - uses and abuses drugs and women, and even though Thursday saw Tesfaye’s character find a muse - one whom he created and destroyed a relationship with - his character’s demeanor inevitably led him back on the same path. So, after the fallout of failed relationships, finding Tesfaye placed (once more) exactly where he started, the inevitable question is: where does he go from here.
Back to his hedonistic inception, that’s where.
That isn’t a bad thing though. Thursday saw him get in touch with humility before veering off course and returning to House of Balloons’ lyrical direction, but it’s what he does best. And even though there’s a sense of emotional exploration on Thursday, it felt a little reactionary to the praise garnered by House of Balloons. That’s probably somewhat anticipated given his ascent from auspicious beginnings, but what previous efforts lacked in honesty, Echoes of Silence more than makes up for with Tesfaye’s indubitable presence on every track - and his much improved lyricism. He sounds assured and confident in tracks like “The Fall” when he declares: “I ain't scared of the fall; I've felt the ground before’. Beyond those points, Echoes of Silence is forever changing -- from the spacey, surrealist vibe of “Outside” to the laid-back beat of “Same Old Song” proceeding with slinky movements, it’s easily The Weeknd’s most varied and immersive mixtape to date.
Sonically, Echoes of Silence takes the best elements of both Tesfaye’s other mixtapes - the infectious choruses and croons of House of Balloons and the subtler atmospherics of Thursday - and compacts them into one cohesive package. Starting with a cover of the former king of pop’s classics, Tesfaye emulates Jackson’s voice to astonishingly successful heights on “D.D.”. Elsewhere, Tesfaye produces some of his filthiest tracks to date. “Initiation” sounds like a post-party lounge song; never taking any particular vocal direction, Tesfaye’s voice is modulated to the point where it’s unrecognizable 90% of the time. The anonymity of it makes it foreboding and unsettling, as well as the lyrics: “I got a lot of boys/And we can make you right/And if you get too high/Baby come over here and ride it out, ride it out”. Taking the immaculate production and immediacy of House of Balloons and mixing it with the creepiness of Thursday, Tesfaye finds a midpoint that works exceptionally well here. Moreover, this formula is employed on almost every track, giving the listener the best of both worlds.
Through the manipulation of Tesfaye’s gorgeous falsetto, and his overall readiness and tendencies to drastically morph his songs, we’re graced with what’s possibly the Weeknd’s best release yet. The bar has been set unrealistically high for his debut LP, but as it stands Tesfaye’s three releases in 2011 are all at the top of their genre. Debates as to which of the three are the best are bound to arise, but they’re ultimately irrelevant; Echoes of Silence is a more than worthy conclusion to his trinity of mixtapes. In under a year’s time Tesfaye has risen to the upper echelons of fame, and the praise is well deserved indeed.
4. XO/The Host
6. Same Old Song
7. The Fall
9. Echoes of Silence