From Marvin Gaye to Prince, and from R. Kelly to Drake, R&B artists have a long tradition of working out their sexual neuroses in song. For the greatest of them, the musical invention mirrors the lyrical weirdness, and the latter ultimately plays neither as confession nor celebration, but as a declaration of humanity. Such is the case with the Weeknd, which he fittingly pronounces as “weakened.”
Hailed by fellow Toronto native Drake and widely celebrated on the Net, one-man band and home-recording wizard Abel Tesfaye became an underground sensation and the latest example of the growing power of self-distribution and promotion via three mix tapes that all were given away for free on his Website in 2011:House of Balloons, Thursday, and, Echoes of Silence.
Arriving just before Christmas and combining the darker vibes of the debut with the experimentation of the follow-up, the latest is his strongest, starting with the opener, a lighthearted but nonetheless powerful cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” This is a bold statement that the Ethiopian musician sees himself as ranking with the greats (and it no doubt will eventually prompt the notoriously litigious estate of the Gloved One to block further distribution, so download the disc now). The eight originals that follow are very nearly as strong, with Tesfaye employing a wide range of vocal styles over a unique take on modern R&B grooves that owe as much to trip-hop and industrial art-rock as they do to any of the sounds that have dominated the genre for the last two decades.
The lyrics of tracks such as “Initiation” explore unsettling questions about non-consensual sex, but in the complicated psychodrama sense of the Velvet Underground or Nick Cave rather than the Hustler-worthy fantasies of Odd Future (or R. Kelly). And the music always seduces, even as the message unsettles, just as it does in the strongest work from the horny weirdoes who’ve preceded him.
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.