There’s much to be said when it comes to the city of Toronto that may or may not have been brought to life by the countless amount of songs that Drake has put out over the years, and been available to the world outside of the 4th biggest city in North America. There’s been an embattled frustration in the city, because we’ve only been (heavily) represented by one person for going on about 5 years, music wise (no disrespect to Melanie Fiona at all). When he brought upon the talented Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd, it was a moment where a new face would come to light and be yet another catalyst that could continue the flame that has been sparked, especially with the ‘6 culture’ that’s been running amuck over the past year. For myself, The Weeknd has been an artist of mystery since his beginning to only just recently (I want to say a year & a half ago) when he started to show his face more, and step out into the proverbial light as opposed to being a vampire that skulked away in the shadows of misery and drug induced abyss. What we knew him for, in the beginning, was for the moody songs, the captivating voice that’s been one of the most unique for years, and as stated before, that mysterious aura about him. The Trilogy brought about a host of fans that eventually built up enough support that he signed with a major and dropped his first album, Kissland. To say that it didn’t live up to the hype would just be putting it lightly, but that’s essentially what it did. It felt as though he was stuck in-between crossing over to the mainstream side by still carrying over the sound that got him to that point to begin with, but it got old pretty quick. The jig seemed to have been up before it cracked the surface, so what do most great acts do? They step away for a bit and focus on their growth. Now, Abel did a bunch of features in the meantime, but it was Earned It that really shot him over the moon, despite having had music from House of Balloons used in quite a few movie trailers (that should tell you something about the music that followed after). Because of that success of 50 Shades of Grey and the fact that the song had been all over the place, including a duet sung with Alicia Keys at the BET Awards, it would appear that he was well on his way to that stardom that a lot of people had thought he would have been at already. The question would have been: would he attempt to go back to that dark side in a twisted way, or shift to more Pop, which would be the fear of the majority of his Day 1 fans? There aren’t many acts saving grace for Male R&B (whatever you want to call it these days), but The Weeknd surely does give hope. The question is: would he accept it or fumble the opportunity?
Now, having heard Earned It and two other songs from the album that I’ll touch on as the course of this review goes on, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect, sonically, with this album, because subject wise, I had an idea what was going to be presented, but at the same time I could have been completely wrong, because I know that he moved away from his druggy influences and darker moods. That was the interesting thing leading into this album. He built up so much momentum, that he could completely flip the switch and go a completely different direction. Something told me that that was exactly what was going to happen. Because of House of Balloons, I was always going to be a fan of his, although the rest of his music didn’t exactly resonate with me long-term (The Zone is basically the only song from Thursday that I’ll voluntarily revisit). What struck me to start the album wasn’t necessarily the glaring electronic stings on Real Life, but rather when he starts singing, the eerie comparison to the Late Great Michael Jackson with his tone & flow. Now, obviously and with full agreeance, there is no comparison to the Greatest of All Time, and there never will be, but a lot of these discussions first came up when Abel did his own cover of Dirty Diana on Echoes of Silence (ironically, the first song on the project). His vocal tone even throwing in the adlibs really did sound like Michael, but obviously he’s not as strong of a singer as Mike, although that’s not denouncing the fact that Abel has his own strengths as a singer. That’s what I got out of the first song on this album. That conversion to his superstardom was taking shape, and since MJ is one of the heroes he looked up to, why not pay homage to him?
“Tell ’em this boy wasn’t meant for lovin’
Tell ’em this heart doesn’t stay to one
I’ll be the same, never changed for nothin’
It’s all I know, never learned much more”
The mystery of Abel’s music is reflective of his own personality, and because of the multiple life hardening trials and tribulations he’s endured, there are a lot of wrongs that he’s done, but won’t necessarily change them for anyone, because that’s who he is and that’s all he knows. On the other end, you could look at it in terms of who he is as an artist and the fact that so many people have gotten on his case about the change of style in his music. On one hand, there’s the druggy & depressed Abel that people want to hold, love, and cherish because everyone loves their underground artists while they stay underground, but the purpose to grow as an artist means that you have to break some hearts, try some new things, and take a few risks in order to get to where it is that you want (which he highlights in his 2nd verse). Women have always been the source of inspiration and subject, since it’s his ‘real life’ encounters that he’s sharing, and although they’re not pretty, at least he’s honestly and unapologetically sharing those experiences and opening up his vulnerable state like he has over the past 4 years. This seems to be the final reflection of that life as he moves into a new phase of life.
The piano in the beginning of Losers reminded me of that piano sample in Kanye’s So Amazing for the oddest reason, but perhaps that was just me (those little things throw me off sometimes). The opening line “only losers go to school” had me feeling a way because I graduated high school & college (racked up a college loan in the process), so yes Abel, I took offense to that, but that’s not the first and won’t be the last time that artists point a middle finger to the institutionalized establishment and shake their heads to the people who consume themselves in that system – I get it. Those who do quit high school or drop out of college have their own reasons, and part of that has to do with making something out of your own whims and having the guts to go through all of the meddling shit during the process in order to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve. For The Weeknd, it was music, and in this sort of chronological story that we’re being walked through (as you’d find out in the couple of interviews released around the time of the album’s release), him quitting school (shout out to West Hill Collegiate – SCARBOROUGH) was a pivotal moment in his life as he packed up and moved downtown to chase the dream (we’ll get to that part in a moment). For him, going to school did nothing but waste time, so he made a decision and went to go get it. When you know what you want, it is better to just go after it instead of wasting time waiting around for a paper of achievement to tell you that (I’m not advocating that anyone drops out of school, however), but there is a greater risk that doesn’t always bode well for those who do it. It seems to have gone fairly well for him looking back at it now, and now he’s on his way to the proverbial throne of music, where that’s always been the goal for him.
“And now that we’re all grown up
Who do we owe it to?
And now that we’ve gone this far
Who do we owe it all to?
We did it all alone
Now we’re coming for the throne”
They always say that the kids who drop out of school are the losers or quitters, but on the flipside, if it works out in ways that said person who called you a loser, didn’t imagine, then who’s the actual loser in this situation? It’s an interesting spin on it, so I admire the fact that he got chesty and was metaphorically saying “in your face” to those who doubted. Flourish, young man. Flourish. Labrinth sounds like he could step right into Chris Martin’s role for Coldplay and take over. I was really digging his voice, although him and Abel used the exact same lyrics for their respective verses. Why that was done? I couldn’t tell you, but I didn’t mind the change of vocals from both. The beat drop was definitely not something I saw coming. One moment you’re just simply bopping along, and the next you feel the need to break out into a routine. I could dig it a lot. The production has been 2 for 2 thus far. Already liking it more than I liked Kissland as a whole. That’s always a good sign.
Now, having mentioned Kanye previously, it’s only right that I segue into Tell Your Friends, which is singularly produced by the man himself. The first time I heard this song was on Soundcloud from someone who had ripped it from a live show (Travis Scott’s), and I couldn’t stop playing it because although the beat was so simple, it was effective on how Abel was delivering it as though it was a rap song. Full verses and all. It was exciting, and that wasn’t even the whole song, so you can imagine how long I had the song on repeat the first time I heard it. Soul samples are Kanye’s bread and butter and he got them once again as the minimalist approach brought out the best of Abel.
“These niggas they been doing too much flexing
And they’re about to call the wrong attention
And I ain’t got no patience, no more testing
I do shit how I want, don’t need no blessing”
There are a lot of pretenders in this game that we like to call the music industry and the separation of real from the fake seems to be further and further apart, because who really is ‘bout that action, boss? One thing that is undeniable about The Weeknd is that he truly lives by the content of his music. The drugs & the women are part of his whole embodiment, and if you know the people who know him (Toronto’s not that big in the grand scheme), they’ll tell you the same things about him. Part of this line has me believe that this is a little shot at Drake, because they haven’t exactly been ‘cool’ since The Weeknd (wisely) walked away from OVO and did his own thing, hence the ‘no patience’ (sitting on the bench) and ‘no blessing’ (meaning co-sign) statements. I’m not mad at him either, because he wouldn’t have been as big under The Boy. I like that this is a long song filled with depth of lyrics because he tells the story of his come up from his party lifestyle, to his humble homeless beginnings, to his realization that he’s made it to a big stage in his life and looking back brings out the emotion that the soundtrack conveys (again, well done, Mr. West).
“I was broken, I was broken, I was so broke
I used to roam around the town when I was homeless
Me and Lamar would rob a nigga for his Jordans
And flip it just to get these hoes another nose fix”
I found this part hilarious because I never would have thought that Abel would be the type to rob dudes at any instance, but then again when you come that East end, just know, it’s always a ting eh? But in all seriousness, the villainous image that he portrays himself just got a little dosage of intrigue because of the lengths he went just to satisfy not only himself but the women he surrounded himself with, just for some nose candy. How romantic. Having this song on repeat definitely makes it my favourite of the album, and although this is only the third track in, I know that this is a song I’ll always come back to just because of the production fuelled by Kanye elevated it that much. It’s arguably one of Abel’s best songs since I started listening to him, in all honesty, but there was more to come.
I don’t know what it was, but the first time I heard Often when it came out a year prior to the album being released, I didn’t like it, and I didn’t know why. It just didn’t hit me or it didn’t sound right; I couldn’t tell you, but when I listened to it on the album (with proper headphones), it sounded different than before and I was really vibing to it more than I did when I initially heard it. That ‘old Weeknd’ that so many of his older fans had been wanting for the longest time, this track has some of that, whether you think that it’s highly misogynistic or not. It’s explicit, it’s sexy, and the production is what carries it. It feels like a one night stand, because there’s an adrenaline rush behind it and coupled in with the content of the song itself, it suits the new direction he goes with which leads into The Hills, and it’s weird how this and ‘Real Life’ have similar beginnings with the electronic rifts that set the tone. The video for ‘The Hills’ is crazy too, which actually led me to liking the song a little more, and this too was a song that I had heard prior to the album and triggered my interest because it was really out of the element that was presented from Kissland, and for good measure. The Weeknd really loves creeping around and having tings on tings on tings (a copious amount of women, if you will) as sex is the ultimate rush for him and getting it comes to him like it’s nothing. There’s not a lot of depth to these two songs because they are the spark plug that push the album forward in terms of the sexualizing of his persona that has been welcomed & embraced with open arms (or legs, whatever). I was actually surprised that both of them made the cut for the album because they’ve been out for so long, so I guess that’s why they didn’t particularly stand out to me; not really filler, but they do fit with the theme of the album, alluding to his ‘bad guy’ persona.
Going back to ‘Tell Your Friends’ there’s a part in the 3rd verse where Abel says “my niggas said don’t fall in love, that shit is pointless” and here we are on Acquainted where Abel stumbles upon a girl whom he doesn’t exactly fall in love with, but he’s developed more of an interest in her as opposed to just having women come in like a revolving door like he expressed on ‘Often.’ There always seems to be that one that throws you off when you’re not looking to settle down, that just strikes you and is just different from the rest. It messes up your whole game, and when the boys take notice, that’s when you know what’s up.
“Baby you’re no good
All my niggas think I’m crazy cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout us lately
But really if I could
I’d forget about you”
“To say that we’re in love is dangerous
But girl I’m so glad we’re acquainted”
It’s so easy to say that you could quit someone, but you can’t because they just have something over you that is indescribable and you don’t question it, you go with it. It explains why he says why he’s glad that they at least know each other because he doesn’t want to put his feelings in the wrong place and be crushed by them. Which then leads us to the strengthening of emotions towards her in Can’t Feel My Face. Now, if you aren’t familiar with the term, when one says that they can’t feel their face, they’ve probably been so engulfed in cocaine that their face goes numb. It’s also the title of a mixtape between Juelz Santana & Lil Wayne that was the hype before Watch The Throne was even a thought. That was the thing everyone was anticipating, but that’s way off topic. The Weeknd’s feelings for this girl are dangerous to the point where he could go numb from going too deep into his love of this girl (because Love is such a potent drug, don’t you know).
“And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb
And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come
But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young
This I know”
This is the song where a lot of old fans screamed in agony saying “Oh no, he’s gone Pop, it’s over,” and where that may be true in a sense, he was never really regulated to R&B either, because he always had Pop tendencies in his music. This just culminates in whatever he’s been scheming from the beginning. The obvious Michael Jackson influence is what struck me instantly from the voice to the beat itself. It’s up-tempo, it’s perfect for radio, and like most people have said, if MJ was still alive, he would have made something like this (it essentially sounds like something he’d already have made). Even Quincy Jones likes it, and you know how important he is already to the MJ legacy. If the song is not any indication of it being a full-fledged homage to Michael, then the video would drive that point home. The dancing with the microphone, the little MJ shuffle, the spin, and the fire that was reminiscent of the infamous Pepsi commercial disaster – all of it was present and that’s where even more of the “Weeknd is our generation’s MJ” talk got a little louder, and it certainly upset a lot of devote MJ fans (there are quite a few, just saying). Regardless of whatever you think about the comparisons, this is a really good song, and I’ll always groove to it when I hear it. It has that reminiscent throwback sound that people always seem to want to ‘bring back,’ even though it never will, but it’s certainly a song that can and will stretch across a couple generations of people.
Shameless came to me as a surprise, because the acoustic guitar with the simple beat in play made it easy for Abel to float all over the song, which turned out to be yet another favourite. Where there’s the good side to love, there’s always the condition on what justifies that love. A shameless love means that there are no apologies for whatever acts come within the territory of heavy feelings for an individual.
“I don’t wanna hurt you but you live for the pain
I’m not tryna say it but it’s what you became
You want me to fix you but it’s never enough
That’s why you always call me cause you’re scared to be loved”
Serving as an outlet for someone to run to when they have problems can be a burden, but Abel has no shame in how he acts because the girl will seemingly always find her way back to the situation when she becomes lost and in need of a fix. This could also be a play on drugs, since people use them as a necessary and temporary escape from on-going issues. The same can be said for infidelity as a reason why people often break their own moral code for an outside source of satisfaction. The thing is that Abel will always be there because he cares, and I liked the simple approach of the song that emphasized the statement being made. It’s soothing, but at the same time, sad. These hopeless romantics love playing Yo-Yo with their hearts.
If you haven’t noticed already, a lot of songs are structured on this album to directly compliment each other, and I think that’s another reason on top of the production of the songs themselves that has made me gain more appreciation for this body of work. With Earned It being his biggest song of his career, it’s to no surprise that it could be up for a lot of awards by the time the next major music awards season comes around. I didn’t watch 50 Shades of Grey, nor did I read the book, but I know that the emphasis of the story involves a lot of sex (erotica, if you will) and it just makes sense that the biggest song would come from The Weeknd (Miguel probably could have done this song too) whom is seemingly the ambassador of all things sexy in the male R&B sector. Between the string arrangement and the lusty tone of it all, it just sets the tone for any setting that needs the mood just right, whether it’s at home with a loved one, or in a movie theatre for the world to see. Continuing from ‘Shameless,’ the reason why he’s willing to do so much for this girl is because she’s worth the harboring of emotions and he looks forward to any opportune moment in which she’ll grace him with her presence.
“On that lonely night
We said it wouldn’t be love
But we felt the rush
It made us believe it was only us
Convinced we were broken inside”
The story remains consistent from songs prior and continues to build up that love between Abel & mystery girl, because being as they’re both lost & damaged, at least they’ve found an understanding that these are real feelings that would like to be explored further. For the people who have to be regulated to listening to Top 40 radio, I’m pretty sure that they’ve been tired of it for a long time, but this really is a beautiful song. It makes you (if you’re single) look at yourself like “damn, can I get one of those or what?” In time, young human. In time.
The MJ homages don’t stop, y’all. Whether you like it or not, there’s something that he wants to go for. The timeless sound that will be able to transcend for years to come. In The Night sounds like that 80s Pop that I’m pretty sure I’ve heard my mother play during Saturday morning clean ups. This was one of the songs that I really just shrugged off, because at this point I felt as though this was turning into a karaoke of Michael Jackson hits. For the younger crowd without a history of vintage listening, this may feel original, but trust me, it’s been done before. Perhaps ‘bringing it back’ didn’t necessarily need to be taken literally in terms of sonically, but having the same feeling that gave people a desire to listen to the music to begin with, hence why they would turn out to be timeless. Digging into the song itself, the story is about a girl (perhaps the backstory of his beloved one) who has been consumed by the bleak atmosphere of her surroundings and was living without consequence, just trying to fill the void – whether it had to be love or drugs to do the job.
“In the night she hears him calling
In the night she’s dancing to relieve the pain
She’ll never walk away
In the night when she comes crawling
Dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face
She’ll never walk away”
It turns out that stripping is the key to her release and thus has our narrator (Abel) telling her tale, again, in the best non-Michael Jackson way possible. It’s eerie to think of how similar it is. I can literally picture MJ doing his signature spins & pelvic thrusts with the sequin glove on his hand. Might as well throw in a Moonwalk or two.
As You Are was another song that I didn’t much care for, because production was doing well, but this just missed for me. I feel as though the latter half of the album somehow transported me back to the 80s and I should be wearing a fluffed blouse with tight, high-waist pants a la Prince. The phrase ‘come as you are’ means to indulge in whatever activity as yourself, flaws and all. Asking that from someone else may or may not always go your way, because many people like to shy away from those who have their issues. It’s the point where a love can be really defined, by setting aside the bullshit and being able to say, “you know what? You may piss me off and do stupid things, but we can make this work.” Abel wants to know every nook and cranny of this girl’s soul. Everything that makes and breaks her, even if it’ll break him. Beyoncé said it best, Flaws & All. I will say that the latter portion of this song, when it slows down and he goes all freestyle with it, makes it more interesting to the ears as opposed to the track as a whole. It almost merits a skipping, but I can tolerate it because it is saved towards the ending.
If there’s one artist that I’m glad that I have in my iTunes (but not necessarily in regular rotation) is Ed Sheeran. I always say that there’s something in the water on the East side of the Atlantic Ocean, because the UK keeps putting out great ones. Him linking up on Dark Times was highly anticipated by most and they certainly didn’t disappoint. In a very Blues sound, their admissions of ‘dark times’ was put into perspective of just everything that took place from the album’s beginning to its gloomy end. It’s as though they’ve been coming down from the high and it’s that “what the hell happened” phase that comes after waking up from a bad trip. They both go into their stories where they fought each other, and it clicks that this could be the boyfriend of the girl that Abel’s been scheming with the whole time (no wonder they were trying to keep it on the low low). They both killed this song, and as I was going through the first listen, I definitely felt as though this should be the next single whenever he planned to put out another one. I know for a fact a video to compliment this would be ill. It’s not often that you have a couple of star singers come together to deliver a knockout. This is a good moment.
I know I’m not alone on this one, but to this very day, I have not seen or heard the appeal in Lana Del Rey’s music at all. It doesn’t move me in any way, and maybe it’s because I’m not one to drown myself in the depths of hard love, but it shouldn’t matter. I’ve probably upset a few, but that’s the truth, Ruth. The significance of her feature on Prisoners goes beyond just this album, because in an interview, he admitted that the two of them in some cryptic form are each other’s opposite subjects in their music. I’m surprised they’re not dating, but that does put a lot of context in previous work, and also puts a face to the girl The Weeknd’s been talking about as the love interest that didn’t mean to be that in the first place. Of what I have heard of Lana’s music (because obviously I have listened to her before), she has that same sadness in her music (which can be highlighted by Young & Beautiful) and that balance between the two just makes sense, so this song itself was gearing up to send many hands towards the direction of Kleenex boxes. It turns out, that the misery and sadness were right on deck as they both see each other as prisoners to being addicted to each other’s love, whereas it’s him for her, and her to the fast life she lives. The burning desire keeps them going and whether or not it’s mutual to each other, they both have passion that keeps them going on whichever directions they travel, without fear, without shame, and aren’t scared to crash in their freefalling emotions because they don’t have an escape from their crippling addictions. Although I’m not a fan of hers, Lana did fit on the album because the wispy & airy nature in her voice compliments Abel very well, and the production is similar to what she sings to anyways. You could easily say that they are the male & female versions of each other, and it’s not that far of a reach. Listen to the kids, bro.
Angel is the last song that concludes a very good album, and it’s a final ballad to his beloved as he comes to the realization that because the feelings are strong for each other but not enough to have them together, he hopes that she finds love and later on a female voice (Maty Noyes) wishes the same for him. It’s a long one, but it is nice. I wouldn’t listen to it repetitively, because no one needs to embrace the sadness for long periods of time (that’s just me). It’s a dramatic finish that again carries that vintage sound blended with great lyrics to stand out. It’s sad because it’s like seeing the one you love go off into the world knowing that you can’t be with them. It’s painful, but it’s part of the growing process going through life. Abel’s lifestyle is likely the cause of pushing her away, but because he’s not one for changing, that’s just the burden that he has to carry. The shameless trait comes around full circle and although he’s not the best guy, you still root for the ad guy to win from time to time. It turns out that it couldn’t be.
Needless to say, I do believe this is his best work since House of Balloons, and here’s why. When you want to become something big, you have to take risks, you need to step outside of the box, wear the black hat, and go outside of the norm to see what else you can bring to the table with your art on top of what you already know what to do well. It was a matter of finding a niche that Abel had to do and it appears that he’s either found it, or has come mighty close to securing it. The only thing I would say that did put me off a little bit, was the fact that there was too much of the trying-to-emulate-MJ thing that was going on. I feel as though it takes away from who he is as opposed to setting himself as going about his career as an MJ knockoff, and believe me, we’ve already seen what Chris Brown did to fumble away that opportunity for himself. As to what sound he wants to establish, you can either classify him as R&B or Pop, but this is more so on the contemporary than the traditional that people would like to hear more of – that’s just not what he does (I mean, Frank Ocean is nowhere to fill the void, so…). We are witnessing growth and seeing Abel step out of his shell into a new limelight filled with bigger stages, brighter lights, more hits, and what may come to be, more hardware to come with them (trophies, people, trophies). The beauty behind the madness of his personality was put on full display, and through the love drug, we can see how it’s driven him mad but was the source of inspiration to put out great work. Definitely secure a copy of this album (meaning, buy it) and immerse yourself in the emotional confusion and wanderlust of Mr. Tesfaye. But for now, this is my opinion, this is my review
That’s My Word & It STiXX