Underwhelmed and Overstimulated, Part Nine: Working For The Weeknd


Sound of the City’s year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues.

Fellow roundtablers,

As we turn down the home stretch, I have to say this has all been awesome, and I’m a little sad that we’ll soon have to wrap this up. That being said, I’m going to take advantage of that fact that neither Maura, Katherine, nor Tom will be able to respond to anything I say and talk a little about the Weeknd. In the words of Abel Tesfaye, you’ll wanna be high for this.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I mean, you might still wanna be high for this, but I won’t be talking about the Weeknd. At least not directly, or at least not yet. I’d actually like to skip over the last three posts (all excellent, really) and return to the question of the relationship—or perhaps more precisely, the disconnect—between casual listeners and writers/obsessives, the 49,999,999 fans who can’t be wrong and the one who probably is. Last year, I realized my disconnect when I went home and encountered Young Money’s fruity, loopy “Bedrock” not as stand-in for all that is wrong with rap lyricism but as a song in the middle of a radio playlist. In this context, it sounded great, a nice pick me up after R&Bummer jams like Trey Songz’s “Successful,” and before I knew it I was bouncing up and down as I drove down the highway. The fact that neither of my parents’s cars have functional seat warmers might have had something to do with this, but the Kane Beatz production surely didn’t hurt.

With the Weeknd, this has worked almost in reverse. When House of Balloons dropped this March—or even when Echoes of Silence dropped just yesterday—it seemed as though few critics, particularly R&B critics, wanted to talk about the music, at least not in serious detail. Instead, discussions focused almost entirely around audiences, or maybe they began with a theoretical audience and then worked backwards into the music, with the result that few were ultimately able to say much about either.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. The tape (or is at a “free album”?) first gained momentum after appearing and re-appearing on Pitchfork and its imitators, a group whose track record on R&B is almost as bad as its track record on country and latin music. Naturally, those more likely to bump the Lloyds and Miguels of the world (one of the two is actually sitting alongside the Weeknd on my just submitted, alphabetically ordered Pazz ballot) couldn’t help but ask and continue to ask what attracted this audience to a genre it often ignores. There’s obviously some conjecture here, but I think that recounting is for the most part accurate.

Either way, if you listen to that tape—I’m talking about House of Balloons here—wondering, “What about this has attracted traditionally ‘indie’ listeners,” the answer seems obvious. It samples Beach House for chrissake! And beyond that, its emphasis on dank, combusting atmospherics mirrored much of the work being showcased on the then recently opened (and now recently closed) Pitchfork sister site Altered Zones.

Before I go any further, a note about hooks: Maura, you mentioned in your last post (and sorry to bring this up as the discussion is ending; if you have beef, I guess just take it over to my desk, though watch out of the Christmas lights) that fellow PBR&Ber (thanks again for that term, Eric) Frank Ocean is currently “topping R&B lists ahead of people who write better hooks.” Whether or not this is true, I hardly need to suggest that there is more to a song than its hook. Still, that point seems especially salient in 2011, the year in which the man who writes possibly the best R&B hooks on the planet decided to give it all away with a free album (and he was insistent about calling that) called 1977. But he did write “1+1,” “Run the World (Girls),” “Countdown,” and “Love on Top,” so I can’t be mad.

I also take exception to the Radiohead comp, which seems to be in there mostly to connect these artists, however tenuously, back to indie rock. In reality, releasing free albums over the internet doesn’t put these guys in the tradition of Radiohead so much as the tradition of just about every rapper over the last five or so years. The closest comp might be Trey Songz’s continuously overlooked Anticipation tape, which, well, anticipated not only the distribution method but also the woozy sonics and reflective subject matter. In fact, Trey Songz seems to be a secret influence on much of the “new underground,” whatever that term means to you, of rap and R&B. I don’t know where I might find it, but I recall an interview from early this year or late last year in which Lil B of all people cited him as an example of how to successfully transition into the mainstream without B.o.B-ing.

Plus there’s the music, which, right, now I’m not really talking about either. Perhaps the best way to do this is to just describe what about House of Balloons struck my ears, which, again, is probably what I should have been doing all along. As I approach my word count, I think the simplest way to describe his appeal, at least to me, is to refer back to the title Maura chose for this discussion: In 2011, no musician presented us with a character as underwhelmed and overstimulated as the one dude singing “Shoulda fuckin’ rolled/ But I fuckin’ pulled” but knowing full well he wouldn’t really have enjoyed either.

That’s the thing about the Weeknd, he won’t have to wait ’til he’s 33 to regret not having enough fun with sex, as Maura suggested three posts back, he regrets it now. In that “The Party and the Afterparty” verse, he tells what seems like it would be a really fun time (“Rollin’ on the floor / Messin’ up your carpet / I’ll get it on after four”) but first qualifies it with “I think I’m fuckin’ gone” and immediately let’s his mind stray to the drugged regret quoted above, caught in that downward spiral I briefly mentioned the first of these posts. Maybe he should listen to some Selena Gomez.

One thing I admired about the Weeknd, particularly on House of Balloons, is that he captures this culture of underwhelming overstimulation from within, painfully narrating the slide from party to afterparty rather than secluding himself in a cabin out in the woods and recording songs while living like the main character from Train Dreams. I actually don’t mind Bon Iver—you can’t be the kid who asked for a Believer subscription for his 20th birthday and pretend you’re above that shit—but something about that approach strikes me as, if not false, at least a bit uninteresting. Maybe it’s gender (male, if you hadn’t figured that out) and age (let’s just say, “only getting older”) that draws me towards one more than the other, but I guess I’m willing to accept that. Plus, at the end of the day, after the party and the afterparty, I love a good hook. The Weeknd, I suspect, does too.

With that, I’ll pass this over to Eric, who now has the burden of closing this out by discussing in detail every important song, record, and news story we have yet to cover. Good luck.

I’m so, I’m so proud of all of you.