Releasing 3 extremely well produced mixtapes in a single year was, and still is, unprecedented enough. Giving them away for free was a gamble. Not promoting them was insane. Hiding his face for the entire year was suicide. And at the same time it all made perfect sense. The effortlessly enigmatic Abel Tesfaye has been quietly growing an army of loyal followers since 2011, when he quietly released the critically acclaimed “House of Balloons” mixtape from his corner of the Internet. Despite the following frenzy, he decided to keep frustratingly hidden while releasing the equally excellent “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence” (featuring cameos from Drake, Juicy J, and Clams Casino).
This silent treatment deflected focus onto the music – which made enough noise to make him stand out amid a year of releases by Adele, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, and Jay-Z/Kanye West, redefining a stagnant R & B genre while he was at it. The sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere contrasted with an almost operatic voice amongst a backdrop of unusual samples (Beach House, Cocteau Twins and Georgia Anne Muldrow to name a few) made for music as continually fresh and addictive as the drugs in his songs. The intelligence in non-marketing, sophistication of product, and overall impact made it hard to believe it came from a once homeless 21 year old high school dropout from Scarborough, Ontario.
After signing with Republic Records and banishing himself to Japan, he released the first studio album – utterly underwhelming and terribly titled “Kiss Land”. The twisted lifestyle previously so captivating was made repetitive, intense atmosphere became industrial, his stories comical, the enigma gone. Despite the usual formula it just seemed like a pathetic attempt of mixing pop with R & B…..resulting in a mediocre outcome. On the back of this almost universally disappointing emergence to the mainstream, the stakes were high. Yet the fans never gave up. We refreshed the fan pages, checked the KTT forum, kept hunting for a scrap of new material to feed on. He had hidden behind his tour and wasn’t coming out to play anytime soon.
Fast forward 3 years and we have a new stage in the evolution – a pop-embraced star burgeoning on world domination. Features with Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross have given way to Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran. Shadows have given way to limelight. And his hair still be growing like a fucking Saiyan. Excited though he was to run into the arms of pop mogul Max Martin, the original fans weren’t so keen to follow. Despite a slow stream of tracks reminiscent of the good old Trilogy days it still felt like a complete selling out. Now that the album has been released and digested in its entirety a collective sigh of relief can be heard.
As an overall concept the album is essentially a dark R & B album hidden behind a pop template. Yes there are undoubtedly pop tracks and yes there are undoubtedly R & B tracks, but the complete package is a good mixture of both worlds. Pop tracks “Real Life” and “Losers (featuring Labrinth)” give way to a 3 track combo of “Tell Your Friends (produced by Kanye West)”, “Often”, and “The Hills”. At a glance it then fades into songs about love over simplistic pop beats. However, The Weeknd has always rewarded repeat listening. You start to notice the cracks: “Can’t Feel My Face” is about personifying and loving cocaine like a woman; “Acquainted” is about his reluctance to call his relationship with a girl anything other than “we’re fucking”; and “In The Night” about a woman who was raped as a child using stripping as therapy. The words have changed, yet the subject matter remains quintessentially Weeknd.
However, for all the good aspects that have remained, so have the bad. Like it’s predecessor, “BBTM” is extremely catchy at it’s best, but can sink into annoyingly repetitive at its worst. Towards the end of the album it felt like I was tuning myself out of the endless array of filler tracks. The total amount of tracks comes to 14, though it could easily have been cut to 11, and I really only liked 8. The appeal of the skip button was only made stronger by having comparatively old and overplayed tracks “Often” and “Earned It” thrown in there. What, you had 3 years and couldn’t come up with 2 extra tracks? Could’ve at least thrown “King Of The Fall” in there…..
I also lament the fact that despite each track having an entire army of people contributing to its lyrics, there are still moments of utterly cringey penmanship. The worst candidate by far is “Losers”, where the lyrics are so bad it’s literally laughable – “Only losers go to school/they can’t teach what they can’t prove/come put this in a test tube/’cause stupid’s next to I love you” – sandwiched by a chorus of “and you’re qualified to me-he-he” over a Casio keyboard melody. “Shameless” goes full cringe with repeated shouts of “SHAME” being chundered from nowhere, and “Angel” steps it up by closing the album out with an actual choir of singing children.
“BBTM” definitely isn’t the complete leap into the public’s arms that we thought it would be, and I’m thoroughly grateful for that result. It’s still too pop for my liking, but overall a solid record, and miles ahead of “Kiss Land”. And it finally feels as though The Weeknd is getting the recognition he deserves. At the cost of probably never getting the depressed 21 year old kid making incredible drugged up music again, but at least we managed to squeeze 3 basically-albums out of him, which will hold until we find an alternative. For now I’m happy to tolerate the pop as long as the veiled melancholy stays in there somewhere.