Let’s make it clear who we’re talking about here: The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) is a Canadian hip-hop artist with a gorgeous voice and no record label contract … indeed, he’s got nothing but a friendship with Drake … whose free mix tapes have garnered national attention. Last night his website crashed when the third and final installment in his “Balloons Trilogy”—Echoes of Silence—was released. Echoes comes on the heels of House of Balloons and Thursday, both of which have made the Top Albums of 2011 in magazines and on websites in every corner of the media. The Weeknd’s combination of haunting and sophisticated production, pull-no-punches lyrics and genuinely fallen-angelic voice make for unforgettable hip-hop songs that stick in the mind like daggers.
And then he opens his third mix tape with a Michael Jackson cover. “D.D.” (standing for Jackson’s song “Dirty Diana”) is a thumping, warbling rendition of a classic MJ song, and at times The Weeknd’s voice comes so close to the late pop star’s that one thinks MJ might have risen from the dead. It only gets better from there as The Weeknd rolls through a dizzying suite of everything that was attractive about his first two albums: soulful seduction of tattooed women of the night, three AM ingestions of dangerous drugs, vocal distortions and haunting choruses, three-minute rambling vocal sessions where he sees how many variations of “ooooh” and “aaaahhh” he can come up with … it’s the most aesthetically pleasing nine rounds of narcotics abuse and misogyny ever to emerge on this planet, bar none.
The album strikes a perfect balance between the straight dark crooning of House of Balloons and the experimental sound of Thursday, which included squawking birds and electric guitars. On songs like “Next” and “Montreal”, it’s a simple sensual-creepy groove (be sure to note the delicious French snippets on the latter), but on songs like “Initiation” he mixes it up with a more fine-tuned incarnation of the experimentation we saw on Thursday. On “Initiation” Abel’s voice roves between low and high, panning up and down the scales in a way that’s so delicious it almost makes one giggle. Shame on anyone who claims that House of Balloons was the best he’s ever been: the 21-year-old (!!!) artist has only learned from his past efforts.
The most remarkable thing about Echoes of Silence, though, is how unbelievably cohesive it is: each song is one arm of some larger creature (a black widow, if I had to choose). That’s not to say it’s one chronological story. What I mean is that it all builds one universe, one scene, from the bombastic repetitions of his mantra and logo (“XO”) on “XO / The Host” to the spectral fades and piano on the title track, the trilogy’s closer. This universe is painted with Weeknd’s trademark aesthetic: tragic pleasure, late nights and dangerous women. It’s a universe that’s bittersweet to enter and bittersweet to leave. No other hip-hop artist is capable of producing such emotion, such vivid scenes, and doing it so smoothly. “Well baby I’ve been alone for almost all my life / What makes you think that you could ever do me right,” he cries on “Same Old Song.”
I don’t want to be long-winded, but how intricate and talented of an effort Echoes is just needs repetition: if it hadn’t come out ten days before 2012, I’m confident this would have been the hip-hop album of the year … possibly even the album of the year. The Weeknd will only get more hype in the coming months, and he and his XO Crew deserve all of it and more. On “Next”, he sings “You just want me ’cause I’m next” about a girl involved with him just because of his growing fame. You’re certainly “next”, Abel, but that’s far from the only reason for my growing love affair with you. 9/10
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor