There was no shortage of high-profile 2011 album releases. When all is said and done, [artist id=”1269″]Jay-Z[/artist] and [artist id=”1230523″]Kanye West[/artist]’s team-up Watch the Throne, [artist id=”510062″]Lil Wayne[/artist]’s platinum-plus Tha Carter IV and [artist id=”2545682″]Drake[/artist]’s Take Care will most likely define the year in hip-hop — the genre I love, champion and cover here for MTV News. I’ve purchased, rode out to and enjoyed all of those albums, but when I think of the album I connected with the most in 2011, the Weeknd’s soul-drenched debut, House of Balloons, tops my Best of 2011 list.
The Weeknd got a hell of a push after fellow Canadian Drake tweeted, “Bring your love baby I could bring my shame,” a line from “Wicked Games,” the standout track from House of Balloons. Released in March, HoB is a soulful string of nine sexual-yet-tragic hymns. It’s sex, drugs and rock and roll, but with a twist.
Produced by Doc McKinney, Zodiac and Illangelo, House of Balloons starts with the mood-setting “High for This.” Over a buzzing bass and thudding drums, the Weeknd wails with an emotiveness reminiscent of Prince. Throughout the track, the singer (born Abel Tesfaye) coaches his nervous lover, likening his sexual prowess to a drug. It’s isn’t all chocolates and roses, however. Actually, things get dangerous as he warns, “Hold tight for this ride, we don’t need no protection,” before bellowing, “Trust me, girl, you wanna be high for this.”
Throughout the LP, Tesfaye puts his risquéé lifestyle on display, and therein lies the appeal. Much like how gangsta rap is credited with bringing suburban kids close enough to the danger without ever having to fully experience the consequences, the Weeknd sings of rampant drug use and free love without fear of judgment or penalty. It’s a lifestyle typically enjoyed by freewheeling artists and one that remains a fantasy for 9-to-5ers and family men. I guess the grass is always greener.
With “What You Need,” he goes after another man’s woman, and as much as we’d like to deny it or be politically correct, at one time or another, we’ve all schemed on someone else’s pot of honey. The Weeknd draws strength from singing what most dare not say. We all like to listen and say it’s just music, but it really isn’t. I mean, who really tells their partner, “I always want you when I’m coming down”?
On “Coming Down” the emerging rock star admits that when he’s out partying, popping pills and getting high, he forgets about the woman who has always been there for him through thick and thin. In fact, he starts by singing, “I got something to tell you, but I don’t know how to say it” — and then he just blurts it out.
Not much is known about Tesfaye. He is a 21-year-old Canadian singer whose family hails from Ethiopia. His story, however, is all too familiar, even to those too ashamed to admit it. Take the slow-rolling “Wicked Games,” for example. On the rock-tinged ballad, the Weeknd admittedly empties his bank account in search of a love he knows can’t and won’t last. He croons anyway and consciously plays pretend just to build his confidence after a bad breakup. “So tell me you love me … even though you don’t love me,” he begs a stripper, who will oblige until the money runs out.
It’s a sad reality for some and a lush fantasy for others. For Tesfaye, it just seems to be life as he knows it. On the outside, the House of Balloons looks like a great place to visit, but maybe just for the weekend.
Then, it’s back to reality.
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