With My Dear Melancholy, The Weeknd opts to present himself more as Abel Tesfaye, the haunted celebrity, rather than the dark pop star that has become The Weeknd.
In the brief PR run up to what is essentially a surprise EP, Abel deliberately branded the project as a return to the sounds and themes that defined his early work; the trilogy of mixtapes that catapulted the enigmatic crooner to the upper echelon of the developing PBR&B (wish we could take that name back don’t we) vanguard.
This enticing description immediately summoned memories of the haunting, gaunt, cavernous sounds of the triviality of drug addled young adulthood. Trite? Perhaps. Immature? Inarguably. But far more importantly, House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence embodied the darker side of millennial love, or the lack thereof. With his early efforts, Abel tapped into a dark, selfish pained spirit embedded in a generation of twenty somethings popping pills and fucking up. It was sick and frankly groundbreaking, especially in the context of the male R&B wasteland post Usher’s Confessions and before a lil fella named Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, ULTRA. The Weeknd –at this point still largely unseen by his fanbase and music culture at large– was catalytic in the revival of R&B as a viable and cutting edge genre, and proved to be significantly influential on the Tumblr generation, dictating the flow of Billboard charts today.
The Weeknd’s lighting strike on the zeitgeist, aided by his peers and rivals (see: Drake) in the R&B revival, resulted in a faster-than-conceived arrival into popular music’s superstar tier. His first endeavors into this field were lackluster. His major debut, Kissland, successfully produced a few standout singles, but failed to deliver the cohesive, major label-backed project fulfilling the potential of his first three projects. Abel, now in the midst of burgeoning superstardom, responded with a series of high profile, highly successful features and one-offs, and an international hit in Earned It, thanks to the smut film sensation Fifty Shades of Grey. With solidified pop-chart-darling status, The Weeknd returned with Beauty Behind The Madness, a grandiose, modern Michael Jackson tribute album that produced chart topping singles and the biggest hits of his career at this point (The Hills, I Can’t Feel My Face, Tell Your Friends… all decent af).
Abel is pretty much at the “I’m Rick James, Bitch!” stage of his career. His lowlife (ft. Future) persona is turning an apparently serious cocaine habit into platinum plaques and white people money. The nigga with the hair singing bout poppin’ pills, fucking bitches, living life sooooo trill is living up to his words. But rather than continue down the Edgy Michael Jackson™ path he started on BBTM, he cut his hair, smashed his Teen Choice Awards, and recruited the likes of Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar to deliver his Graduation, a stadium anthem designed send up to hedonism and deciding he wanted to be black. Unfortunately, Abel could not avoid the trend of 2016 pop, and Starboy turned out to be a bloated singles album with little to no tangible ambition. Not bad, some great bops, but about 8 tracks too long, unable to conjure sentiments beyond “inessential”.
That being said, with Starboy Abel produced some of the best singles of his career (Starboy, Reminder, and Party Monster likely rank among his 15 best records) and successfully changed his image. The Weeknd began to assert a new level of self awareness, presence of mind, and understanding of his own racial identity and personhood: moving beyond the shallow narrative of sex, drugs, and alternative R&B, and diving deeper into explorations of his cultural and social positionality. He still sings about the parties and the *cough* Selena Gomez *cough* girls, but there are glimpses of the man behind the melody, a man rejecting the decadence of latchkey adulthood and in search of a feeling and purpose beyond watering down the genre he was essential in creating and developing.This consciousness-in-utero frequently reveals itself lyrically throughout Starboy, particularly in the standout track Reminder, lashing out on the blue eyed soul plundering the culture he established, letting us know his black hair was growing out and his Backwood™ was burning slow, convincingly letting us know that despite Nickelodeon’s best efforts, he ain’t no teen choice, bitch. Abel, still basking in the maximalist flair of pop R&B was showing echoes of the damaged, sensual mystery that demanded the attention of music culture. While Starboy may not have been the most refreshing or polished LP in his catalog, it at the very least inspired hope that neither The Weeknd nor Abel was content being the token ‘R&B Nigga’ in the white pop machine.
Seventeen months is an eternity in the Internet age, and the hiatus between Starboy and My Dear Melancholy began to feel more like the two years of radio silence between 808’s & Heartbreak (more on that later), and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, than the year or so we were accustomed to between Weeknd releases. This reflects an apparent and deliberate reimaging for The Weeknd, a period in which he became more active in social issues regarding black life and became far more involved in hip-hop and rap. Abel was clearly intent on demonstrating ambition –perhaps more than anything– the superstar quality he appeared to lack the most at this stage in his career.
Enter, Melancholy. The scant, twenty-two minute EP that was dropped on streaming services with only a day’s notice. The Apple Music (how do I become the nigga that writes these?!) description of the project makes a point to highlight its lineage to House of Balloons, considered by myself and many others his best, and a decade-defining project. These connections are apt, but more importantly to the overall, consistent quality of the EP is the progression and development of both Abel and R&B essential sound.
Before we dive into the sonic prowess and nuances of Melancholy, I believe it’s important to address a massive factor in the project’s appeal: it is appropriately short. It was much less of a notion to digest the hourish run times of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes because they came at much slower time in Rap Internet history. Today, in the social media driven breakneck pace of the mixtape culture music industry, it is quite a task to make a consistently palatable, and more importantly, memorable project beyond the hour mark. There’s too much music out, the predominant sounds of popular music are too congealed and stagnant, and it is getting harder and harder to listen to phoned in efforts to keep up with the pace of the game that clock in at 18 tracks and seventy minutes. Future and Young Thug, and Offset and Metro Boomin both delivered solid, punchy collab projects because they kept it quick and to the point, trimming that fat that inevitably comes from day long, hundred-track-producing, Atlanta studio sessions. The concise, decisive aura to Melancholy adds to the thematic resonance and cohesion of the project. Abel effectively prevents the moments when the sound can border on monotonous from becoming overpowering. He appears to have figured out the best way to dictate the pace of music, now that he can no longer rely on the spacious, six minute structure of the House of Balloons era.
The pacing of the album does not impede the moodiness and effervescence critical to the classic Weeknd sound. Abel successfully creates complete and luxurious, ominous soundscapes that are gorgeously complemented by the cadence and richness of his voice. He has finally found a consistent, comfortable range that flexes the high notes his contemporaries just don’t have.On Wasted Times, Abel flutters just beneath his elite falsetto, floating brilliantly between the cavernous percussion and the crescendos of the melodic hits. Abel’s voice serves as a bridge between the climatic instrumental instances on the project, deploying his voice as more of an instrument than anything else.
Just as Abel diverted the sonic monotony of the project via pacing alterations, he subverts the repetitive nature of his signing style, which while undeniably technically great, can become very rinse and repeat. He shys away from the hevy pitch adjustments and stabilizing effects he favored on projects past and stuck true to his superior vocal ability, aided by the occasional embellishment of a vocoder, perfectly aligning the melodies of Abel’s mesmerizing range and the staccato urgency of the instrumentalizing force of a voice box. Using these vocal effects sparsely on this project further deepens the connecting line between Balloons and Melancholy by injecting visceral moments of emotion where Abel would before rely on mediocre attempts at dramatic songwriting and his still maturing falsetto. The marriage of Abel’s bouncy, floaty vocals and and the progressive rhythm help speed up the overall darkness of the lust and yearning conveyed lyrically, and the minor chord and downbeat instrumental range. The merger of the sonics so seamlessly brings me back to the bright moments of 808’s trading synths for the cloudy opulence one would imagine lies somewhere between House of Balloons and Rodeo, particularly when Abel indulges his vocoder, bringing dramatic crescendos to create a vulnerability the superstar has thus avoided.
The throwback production style comes from a surprising cast of characters. Rap powerhouse Mike WIll Made It, French House tastemaker Gesaffelstein, and the iconic electro duo Daft Punk build the instrumental structure of the record, but still create the empty, sullen feel of a broken, drug addled, Datpiff.com Abel Tesfaye. This is perhaps the most vivid physical metaphor of Abel’s progression; a beautifully executed revisiting of his ancestral sonic essence, aided by the architects of the Starboy. The dancefloor rattling presence of Daft Punk’s electro funk mixed with Gesaffelstein siren wailing urgency, finally spiced up by a healthy dose of Abel’s killer falsetto somehow bubbles up into this thunderous, eerie, irresistible moment of pain exercised through pleasure; the quintessential theme of the Weeknd’s career.
It feels like a disservice and a reductionist move to label My Dear Melancholy something like House of Balloons 2.0, but this is far from inaccurate and by no means an insult. Melancholy takes the xanax soul of The Weeknd that demanded the attention of the Odd Future generation, a mob of twenty and thirty somethings that have no money for retirement and are best at defining themselves through zeros and ones. In a world so distant but so connected, Abel’s sonic legacy unifies the pain of ain’t-shit-ness, of relationship fuck ups, of disappointing your parents, and coming to the conclusion that your major really doesn’t mean shit. It felt like the Weeknd left that in the rearview with his freeform locs and H&M partnerships. But Melancholy instead asserts that the faceless “Weeknd”, more idea than man at the time, has gone nowhere. He just has a bigger budget and has earned his stripes. The sound is here, it is evolving, and he has finally, definitively assured us that he is not a teen choice. He’s a mothefcuking Starboy, and there is no sight equivalent to a supernova. The dying star, the blaze of glory of cosmic, musical marvel.
(House of Balloons: 9.5/10, just for reference)
3 thoughts on “The Weeknd | My Dear Melancholy”
You’re a very talented writer man! While I personally thought this EP was quite lackluster and boring, you made some interesting points. I agreed with you in that the brevity and relative short length of this project was a substantial part of it’s identity. i Look forward to reading your reviews in the future and check out the review of this EP on my blog too if you’re interested!
thank you for commenting! i absolutely understand how it could’ve rubbed others the wrong way/be seen as a step backwards in his catalog, i love the feedback, will definitely check out your blog 🙂
Yea no problem! Let me know your thoughts on my review if you read it.