'Caine & Abel: Why 'House of Balloons' Was the Weeknd at His Purest

The Toronto singer's debut remains his most raw and influential work.

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Complex Original

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The pained register of his falsetto. The hair that does as it will. The sex, the drugs, the corresponding agony and allure of the hedonism he wades in.

These elements have made the Weeknd a luminary—one who performs cocaine dependency ballads at the Grammys and orchestral anthems from mainstream BDSM films at the Oscars. In five years, he’s turned the corner from mysterious entity to Academy-certified superstar. And although the Weeknd’s proclivity for the self-destructive has made him one of pop’s new favorite sons, he was most impressive in the days when he was more raw, more damaged, and less accessible, which isn’t to say that the Weeknd has made a complete 180, either. His signature downtempo haze was the stencil for present-day R&B’s tranquilized sound, but every characteristic that has made him a star was present in 2011. The biggest change is that he’s elected to step out of the shadows.

Abel Tesfaye now dances confidently under a spotlight he’s earned over the course of five projects, but his debut, House of Balloons, and its singular darkness remains the Weeknd at his absolute best.

Obscurity is seductive. It’s human nature to crave more knowledge about something for which details are sparse, so there was a special magnetism to the Weeknd’s "less is more" introduction. His music wasn’t released as much as it suddenly materialized in early 2011, with the typical new artist initiatory period superseded by the most basic of questions. Did the Drake stamp mean his sonic engineer and fellow Toronto native Noah "40" Shebib was involved? Was the Weeknd a lone artist? If so, what did he look like? Placing face with name is fundamental during this stage, yet the Weeknd presented nothing more than his music for consumption and analysis. The lack of information about him—his affiliations; his ethnicity; his politics—was engrossing, but the anonymity only drove the intrigue. The quality of his music is what kept people around long enough to sing the project’s praises. 

Abel Tesfaye now dances confidently under a spotlight he’s earned over the course of five projects, but his debut, House of Balloons, and its singular darkness remains the Weeknd at his absolute best.

House of Balloons, in tandem with Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra, was responsible for a sharp pivot within R&B. The project invaded this stale area, soldering genres together to bring much-needed originality to a template mired by stagnancy at the decade’s turn. Neither his songwriting nor subject matter were cavalier, but his overall aesthetic was enticing. The Weeknd’s music covered topics similar to Trey Songz’s "Can’t Be Friends," but he employed a different approach. Lascivious invitations to cocaine-fueled threesomes and an underworld of prolonged benders were layered over Beach HouseSiouxsie and the Banshees and Aaliyah samples, and the hollow, subterranean feel of it all was perverse to the point of fascination.

The things we know are harmful are often the most attractive. With House of Balloons, the Weeknd expertly captured how vices are used to circumvent reality and illicit substances and experiences guide behavior. And, ironically, the Weeknd’s feathery voice added to the weight of music that was dark, but merely the companion for tales of degeneracy that were even darker.

By 2011, R&B was two decades removed from the introduction of Jodeci and R. Kelly’s influential style of sweaty advances. Where they were characterized by passion, overt testosterone and blow-your-back-out braggadocio, the Weeknd utilized something else: vulnerability. But his weapon wasn’t a Babyface Tender Lover type of sensitivity; the Weeknd was a wounded lothario whose suffering manifested as nihilism. House of Balloons framed a certain lifestyle and mood: twilight loft parties where 20-somethings shed their morals under the dual influence of drugs and damaged relationships. Both are methods of escapism—the bad habits people sink into to distract from life’s failures or monotony—and the Weeknd’s use of them as House of Balloons’ most potent themes was exceptional.

"You don’t know what’s in store/But you know what you’re here for." The first words sung on "High for This,"House of Balloons’ opener, ring like assurance preceding some new experience combining sex and drugs. This could be a one-time experiment, but could just as easily pertain to a tumultuous relationship. There are no love songs on House of Balloons, only references to broken people seeking comfort through lust. "They don’t want my love, they just want my potential," the jaded singer declares on the second half of "The Party & The After Party." In this world of half-empty liquor bottles, scattered pills, and cocaine residue, relationships are trivial because both parties are bound by shared emptiness rather than romance. On "Wicked Games," the Weeknd strays in temporary pursuit of it via the girlfriend experience, and the search is motivated by a lack of confidence. All of these exchanges, duration or reasoning notwithstanding, are unhealthy.

"Coming Down" and "The Knowing" are admissions. On the former, he cops to his paramour’s time only being valued when his high is fading; the latter is a joint mea culpa of infidelity and his indifference towards its role in a relationship’s demise. "What You Need" is a syrupy come-hither that, despite being an eerie indecent proposal, is undeniably sexy. At the heart of House of Balloons’ seduction is a guilty pleasure factor where enjoyment of it doubles as consent to not only being taken "down another level," as Abel puts it, but loving the descent. House of Balloons speaks to everyone’s dark side: the shrouded after hours fantasies that were never acted upon, the purple-tinted memories, or the routines commenced when the clock strikes midnight and intoxication takes command. Its channeling of temptation’s distinct gleam is a significant part of its legacy.

Another major reason House of Balloons stood out is because it was made without regard for commercial success. It went viral despite just two of its nine songs ("What You Need" and "Wicked Games," his eventual debut single) resembling anything radio-friendly, and funny enough, that’s why the Internet devoured it. Kiss Land, on the other hand, was his introduction to the masses, but failed to distinguish itself because the Weeknd was struggling to find the identity and spark that House of Balloons brought. (He said as much in his very first interview, a 2013 Q&A with this publication: "I don’t know who I am right now and I’m doing all these outlandish things in these settings that I’m not familiar with.")

On Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd harnessed his catalog’s best, but, above all, reignited the spark of his origin. "The Hills" is as licentious and "Tell Your Friends" as explicitly candid as anything on House of Balloons, but the stretch of the album’s mainstream appeal came at the expense of the mixtape’s very specific edge. The Weeknd’s music is less self-loathing today than it was in 2011, but that’s also made him slightly less absorbing.

The Weeknd’s brand of withdrawn bacchanal was always destined for greatness, so him settling onto his perch as a deviant pop star is unsurprising. What’s equally unsurprising is that his ascent required the sacrifice of his mystique. When he unveiled his likeness, he developed an identifier: the hair. His music has evolved with his confidence, and Beauty Behind the Madness represents the polished middle ground between unscrupulous impulses and sobering radio bait, but still feels reigned in. The Weeknd shines brightest when unbound; when his sole concern with beauty comes from a place of depravity. That’s what House of Balloons brought—the drugs, the pain, and the Weeknd reaching an unparalleled artistic height by reveling in the lure of life's ugliness.

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