2011, A Retrospective: House of Balloons

The year 2011 was remarkable for rap music. A litany of projects released that year would prove to be generation defining classics, powered by the death throes of the blog era and leagues of media savvy young artists utilizing the Internet and its reach in ways that had not yet been tapped. Ten years later, wiser and more appreciative, we have the honor of giving this revolution its undue attention, as well as championing its proper recognition within the rap canon. This year, DXCEGAME will revisit some timeless 2011 hip-hop projects. We hope to illustrate their influence and lasting power amidst a new rap industry, an industry that is increasingly reliant on the technique and innovation pioneered by the artists of this era.

R&B–particularly the male subgenre–was in its nadir towards the end of the 2000s. A generic, repetitive sound had suppressed the genre’s development. While the era produced some generation-defining talents like Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown, the overall stylistic progression of the genre was choked by endless hordes of shirtless niggas, Michael Jackson zealots and played-out thematic crutches. 

In 2010, newcomer Miguel injected the scene with some originality and innovation. All I want Is You, the singer’s debut, was a breath of fresh air, opting for sensuality over the near-criminal levels of horniness baked into the genre by Ginuwine and his progeny. Instead, Miguel made steam through mystery and musical eclecticism, blending funk, electro and early EDM sounds to build sonic landscapes for his falsetto to glide over, whispering innuendos and sweet nothings rather than shouting them from the top of his lungs. The baby oil-covered, shirt-free, man-pleading-for-forgiveness-for-philandering R&B that dominated the aughts had met the first iteration in its evolution. Soon, the alternative brand of R&B Miguel first seeded would blossom under the care of an elusive Canadian drug addict with a vocal range that drew comparisons to Michael Jackson.

Abel Tesfaye, p.k.a. The Weeknd, did not burst onto the scene. In early 2011 and for some time after, the artist was a complete enigma, frequently misidentified as a band rather than a solo act. He refused to show his face, the only tangible evidence of his existence was his music. The hazy mythos Abel worked hard to cultivate only made the product more potent, and on March 21st, 2011, everything came together in a mystifying blend of groundbreaking music, expert marketing, and a music ecosystem waiting for disruption. 

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House of Balloons, the first of The Weeknd’s now legendary Trilogy series of mixtapes (later repacked into a three-disc commercial set following his major label signing, perhaps making him the first artist to have a greatest hits record before a debut album), was a complete shock to the insular world of R&B and the music industry as a whole. Executive produced by himself and little-known Canadian record producer Doc McKinney, Balloons dropped with little fanfare. The mixtape was a drastic departure from the norms of the industry, sparking a whispered rebellion and firmly establishing the subgenre of alternative R&B. Bloggers, forum frequenters, and critics alike were immediately mesmerized. For 50 minutes, The Weeknd enchanted listeners with eerie, minimalist production that blended into a cohesive, psychedelic-while-sedated haze that perfectly mirrored his crooning meditation on late nights, copious drug use, and aloof, distant non-love. 

The opening seconds of the intro track, “High For This,” are a masterclass in tone setting. The spectral, rising synths coax the listener into a decidedly darker, haunting experience than an R&B enthusiast would be primed for. Lyrically, little is left to the imagination. While the songwriting is fantastic and engaging, it is far from abstruse. The Weeknd has told you exactly who he is by the end of the first verse, a blunt overture to a woman as damaged and haunted as he is: “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you’re here for.” The mood is entirely lacking in warmth; one visualizes a snowy Toronto night, light on romance and heavy on prescription drug consumption. There’s an overwhelming feeling that neither party wants to be here, but there’s nowhere in the world they’d really rather be. From the very first verse of the record, you have been irrevocably drawn into the sunless world of Abel Tesfaye, preparing to stumble through this house of balloons intoxicated, with the occasional drunken step producing a menacing pop, which you realize is just a balloon, the same way you realize that she’s just the girl for the night.

The album flows endlessly, a trancelike parade through this mysterious new world, guided by the omniscient, strikingly heavenly voice of The Weeknd. The second track, “What You Need,” is the closest thing on the record to a traditional R&B song. The instrumental is more familiar, with twinkling sexy synth pianos and a lullaby-like drum pattern. It is equal parts Marvin Gaye and Kurt Cobain, leaving the simple hook permanently etched in your mind. “He’s what you want. I’m what you need.” This is the first time we hear Abel bringing confidence to the mic. It’s sexy, it’s tempting,  not because you love him, but because you know you shouldn’t want to. It’s steamy, it’s catchy, it’s cold, it’s uninviting, despite the fact you are drawn closer and closer to this forbidden fruit with each passing second. At this point, you are down for the night. 

Things take a turn for the brilliant on the third cut, the standout, two-halved title track “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.” To this day, after becoming the biggest pop star in the world, after scoring countless platinum hits, this remains the quintessential Weeknd song. The track features far and away the most energetic, uptempo beat on the record, interpolating Siouxsie and The Banshees “Happy House” for the hook, and a pulsating four-on-the-floor drum pattern. The Weeknd’s remarkable vocal range is on full display, his androgynous falsetto jumpstarting the (up to this point) dreary record with high emotion. Lyrically, Abel dives deeper into hedonism; the interpolated hook repeating “This is fun, fun, fun” as if he is trying to convince himself that this is indeed, a happy house. Right as the track crescendos after the second chorus, the instrumental glitches into a grimy, industrial rap beat, with Abel bringing Pharrell-esque whisper bars meditating on never-ending nights of thousand-dollar glass tables with thousands more of cocaine piled onto them. If ever there was a line to quantify The Weeknd, it’s “I heard you do drugs now? You heard wrong, I been on ‘em for a minute.” 

“House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” begins the most remarkable, spellbinding stretch of the mixtape. The fourth cut, “The Morning,” has remained a fan favorite since its release. It’s sweeter than most tracks on the record, prominently deploying sweeping synths and psychedelic guitar riffs. Abel’s vocal delivery is heavenly, describing scenes of blissful loft parties and overflowing lean cups. Then there’s the unforgettable hook: “All that money, the money is the motive.” Other than “What You Need,” this is the most conventional R&B track on the record, with the lush, major-chord driven melodies providing a brief reprise from the starkly dark tones that dominate the majority of House of Balloons. It doesn’t hurt that the track is now forever immortalized by a brilliant, flawlessly designed retro performance in the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems.

Uncut Gems" Is Now On Netflix And It's Supposedly One Of The Most Stressful  Movies Ever, So I Watched For People Who Can't Handle That
The Weeknd in Uncut Gems, alongside Adam Sandler and Julia Fox.

The mood shifts back to haunted romance with the mixtape’s most enduring track, the midway point of the record and centerpiece song, “Wicked Games.” The song is the closest to a traditional soul ballad, detailing heartbreak, self medication, nihilism and dreary love in a way that forever changed the sound and tone of R&B. “Wicked Games” features the most conventional song structure: verse-chorus-verse, and one of the best pre-hooks in recent popular music history: “Bring your love, baby, I could bring my shame/Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain.” The pounding kick-snare drum and sorrowful guitar riff only up the melancholy, and the finished product is the song that most associate with first hearing from The Weeknd. It’s near flawless and has become canonical within the genre he built, a permanent testament to the impact of this mixtape. 

Following the momentum shift of “Wicked Games,” the mixtape enters denouement. While the mood eases into steady consistency, the song quality remains high, and the tonal shift makes the record cohesive and smooth as it shifts into low gear. The sixth song, “The Party and The After Party,” is the second two-halved cut on the mixtape, and much like “The Morning” opts to utilize traditional R&B norms more prominently. Part one of the track is borderline loving, though transactional. It details a familiar scene: a party hookup, and the exchange of drugs and sex, but a shared sense of the intimacy. The hook samples Beach House’s 2006 song, “Master of None,” pitched up to match the upbeat sensuality of this drug-addled meet-cute. Part two of the track, the after party, maintains that 90s R&B style of sex, with an instrumental change that conjours feelings of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious.” While the lyrical content is far from romantic —”She ain’t looking for that unconditional/What the fuck these bitches on?/They want what I’m sitting on/They don’t want my love, They just want my potential”— it’s still intimate, vulnerable and relatable. 

This dual tonality continues for the final act of the record, the following track “Coming Down” providing the most straight-up sad cut on the record, equating the loveless lust and infidelity that pervades Abel’s romances to coming down from a weekend long bender. The final two tracks, “Loft Music” and “The Knowing” balance the melodrama and hedonism that thematically define House of Balloons, the former being caveat-free party song, and the latter an enchanting vocal performance exposing a lover’s unfaithful habits, but with the knowledge that The Weeknd is no saint. All together, the record culminates in a complete narrative, a graphic, vivid scene of a Weekend in the life of Abel Tesfaye, wintery Toronto nights and snow covered glass tables. 

Two more mixtapes would follow in the coming months, each handled by Tesfaye and McKinney: Thursday (most prominently known for producing The Weeknd’s first collaboration with Drake, “The Zone”) and the second best record in the trilogy, Echoes of Silence, the most haunted, dreary of the series. 

The impact of the trilogy, particularly House of Balloons, cannot be understated. As much as The Weeknd’s embrace of woozy production defined his revolutionary sound, it was far from guaranteed that this would be a sound the masses would connect with. Throughout the 2000s, especially towards the end of the decade, pop and R&B were plagued by overwhelming levels of maximalist optimism. Breakup songs were filled to brim with major chord progressions, sounding closer to graduation music or gospel than meditations on heartbreak. While Kanye West’s 2008 game changer 808s & Heartbreak proved to be instrumental in the redevelopment of both rap and R&B, the lasting impact of the project had yet to be fully realized. Even artists that latched onto the electro-fused melancholy of 808s were making upbeat songs, dance music with just a tinge of quantized depression. Frank Ocean’s debut mixtape, Nostalgia, ULTRA, released just over a month prior to House of Balloons, did just as much to establish alternative R&B, but approached it in a much more conventional, inviting fashion. The darkness of House of Balloons was so enticing, so unprecedented, that audience expectations for the biggest stars in R&B shifted to nihilistic, aloof and melancholy sounds and lyrics, with the likes of Usher latching onto the intoxicating style —by he and producer Diplo’s own admission, their hit 2012 song “Climax” was directly inspired by the groundwork Tesfaye and McKinney laid in the trilogy.

So what would come of this minor revolution The Weeknd started? Major label acceptance, and  a rift with McKinney that resulted in a lackluster commercial debut, Kissland. Eventually, ascension to bonafide popstar status with the 2015 blockbuster effort Beauty Behind The Madness, which attached pop maximalism to The Weeknd’s established affinity for nihilism, hedonism, and cocaine. In 2016, Abel again reached new heights with Starboy, his biggest record to date that saw a reunion with McKinney, as well as brilliant collaborations with Daft Punk that would influence his future implementations of synth pop, techno, and house on the underrated 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy and 2020’s inexplicably-not-Grammy-nominated After Hours. The album received universal critical acclaim, particularly for its return to the sonic sensibilities and aesthetics that defined his first records. 

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Despite missing out on Grammy nominations for After Hours, The Weeknd performed at Super Bowl LV, pictured above.

Beyond the musical impact of House of Balloons and the trilogy, The Weeknd’s deliberate marketing scheme–premised on using his music to create a persona rather than celebrity–redefined perceptions of coolness. Independent music had thrived long before The Weeknd and it continued to thrive after he transitioned into full time popstar, but the way Abel chose to expose himself to the public–incrementally and through clever use of early grassroots social media marketing–fundamentally reset how the music industry and audiences view fame and how to attain it. The House of Balloons-era Weeknd created virality with anti-virality, much in the same sense that he created alternative R&B with anti-R&B,  by rejecting antics and actions that would garner fifteen minutes of fame and instead withholding everything to garner infinite demand. 

With endless Abel copycats and a new music ecosystem built around the haunted strip club music The Weeknd invented, the long-lasting impact of House of Balloons is evident every time you turn on the radio. Part of this is because nine times out of ten, you’re going to hear a Weeknd song. The other part is that everyone in R&B is still playing catch up with a decade old, self-released mixtape from a faceless Canadian cocaine addict. Who knows if they’ll ever catch up.

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