The Week In Pop

It’s The Freakin’ Weeknd Baby, I’m About To Have Me Some Crushing Nihilistic Despair

Viewed one way, it’s a pretty impressive flex: You’re about to headline Coachella, and this is what you drop?

Credit Abel Tesfaye for aesthetic mastery if nothing else. How many A-list pop stars could drum up anticipation for their spotlight moment at young America’s foremost corporate bacchanal with a release as unwelcoming as My Dear Melancholy, Tesfaye’s latest “project” as the Weeknd, and be completely on-brand? How many could serve up such a downer and reasonably expect the kids to turn up?

A small batch of zonked-out dirges and low-key dance tracks suited for the final hours before sunrise, My Dear Melancholy (I’m not including the comma at the end of the title because it drives me nuts) exists almost entirely within the wheelhouse Tesfaye built throughout the Weeknd’s underground rise early this decade. It occasionally feints at the gold-plated, silver-tongued pop music that has made him an unlikely mainstay on top-40 radio in recent years — two tracks feel like blurry recollections of previous Weeknd hits — but its sound calls back to a time before he was duetting with Ariana Grande.

Most of My Dear Melancholy consists of shadowy slow jams that evoke the mood of his early mixtape trilogy. On those releases, Tesfaye pioneered a breed of dark and artsy R&B that sounded like it was descending into hell, Requiem For A Dream style. He was your not-so-friendly tour guide through a nihilistic underworld of hard drugs and illicit sex, soundtracked by hip samples and avant-garde production that cast his tales of doomed hedonism as glamorous pop noir. Tesfaye’s later albums have Trojan-horsed that sound into the mainstream to an extent — the harrowing “The Hills” and the ominously skittering “Starboy” are two of the darker #1 hits in recent memory — but he’s also ventured further into pop than previously imaginable on singles like “Earned It,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” “I Feel It Coming,” and the recent Black Panther soundtrack hit “Pray For Me.”

So a return to haunted narcotic sex-dungeon music immediately scans as a return to his roots. My Dear Melancholy does scratch that itch to an extent, but there are a few significant differences this time around. For one thing, Tesfaye is a different kind of narrator than the guy we met on “Glass Table Girls.” Rather than confident and heartless, he’s now bitter and heartbroken, reeling from two messy breakups last year. Wounded, flailing, lashing out and attempting to reconcile in the same breath: His demeanor here puts a totally different spin on fucking the pain away.

That’s not the only way Tesfaye’s time in the spotlight has changed him. His transformation into a pop star has altered the DNA of his music forever. Built by an all-star production team led by Frank Dukes — who has worked with every big name in rap and R&B and contributed heavily to recent pop albums by Lorde and Camila Cabello — these new tracks are glossier and often less breathtakingly audacious than the material that first put the Weeknd on the map. Most of them sound more like deep cuts from Starboy or Beauty Behind The Madness than highlights from House Of Balloons.

Mike Will Made-It contributed to the trap/house slow-roller “Try Me,” more of a mood than a song. A similar doom-glacier effect is evident on “I Was Never There,” one of two songs featuring French producer and Yeezus contributor Gesaffelstein. Neither of these are among the Weeknd’s most vital offerings, but closing track “Privilege” presents a more appealing vision of crushing despair. That one does less with more, letting keyboards rise like fog around Tesfaye’s melodious lament. His opening lines caused a surprising burst of emotion to well up within me: “Enjoy your privileged life/ ‘Cause I’m not gonna hold you through the night/ We said our last goodbyes/ So let’s just try to end it with a smile.”

The project’s other highlight is “Wasted Times,” a brisk, hazy, rhythmically complex dance number co-produced by Skrillex, which booms and surges vibrantly enough to overcome the lyric “Hope you know this dick is still an option.” The other Gesaffelstein collab “Hurt You” feels like a jolt of life too until you realize co-producer Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk has merely phoned in a zombified sequel to “I Feel It Coming.” Opening ballad “Call Out My Name” — a Nicolas Jaar co-production — also renders Tesfaye guilty of self-plagiarism, flipping slow orchestral wallops reminiscent of “Earned It” into a photonegative of that song’s sweet satisfaction. It’s almost like he’s tried to imagine what some of his hits might have sounded like on Trilogy, a half measure that falls short of his early glories.

My Dear Melancholy is too short to qualify as a retrenchment, anyway. At six songs and 21 minutes, it’s best understood as an EP. I can only assume Tesfaye — whose last album was padded with filler in an apparent attempt to juice streaming numbers — has avoided calling it an EP or even the dreaded “mini-album” so that casual fans don’t shrug it off as a skippable minor release. But that’s exactly what My Dear Melancholy is, if you’re more of a greatest-hits Weeknd fan. It’s not even really a bone thrown to his base so much as a series of messages to an even narrower audience.

Aha! So that’s why this project exists: It’s Tesfaye’s miniature tabloid opus, his chance to wallow in self-pity and broadcast not-so-subliminal messages to celebrity ex-girlfriends Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid. “Call Out My Name,” for instance, seems to suggest Tesfaye was planning to donate his kidney to Gomez before her friend Francia Raisa stepped in last summer: “I said I didn’t feel nothing, baby, but I lied/ I almost cut a piece of myself for your life/ Guess I was just another pit stop/ ‘Til you made up your mind.” The song frames Tesfaye as dumped and dejected: “I want you to stay even though you don’t want me/ Girl, why can’t you wait?”

The EP is dominated by this kind of thing; there are entire articles dedicated to decoding it all. On “Try Me,” he later sings about “The way I kissed your scars/The way I fixed your heart.” On “I Was Never There” he alludes to Gomez’s renewed romance with Justin Bieber: “You’d rather something toxic/ So, I poison myself again, again/ ‘Til I feel nothing.” On “Hurt You” he criticizes her for jumping from fling to fling: “You try to fill the void with every man you meet/’Cause you’re upset with me.”

“Wasted Times,” though, files the Gomez relationship away as “wasted times I spent with someone else.” Presumably in Hadid’s direction, he sings, “She wasn’t even half of you,” pleading her to come back with clumsy come-ons like “You were equestrian, so ride it like a champion” — a reference to the supermodel’s former pursuit of Olympic horseback-riding glory. If this flirtation seems at cross-purposes with the rest of My Dear Melancholy, that fits right in with the EP’s confused musical direction. Hopefully it’s just something Tesfaye had to get out of his system and not an indication that the Weeknd has hit a dead end.

CHART WATCH

Not only does Jack White have his third #1 album this week with the debut of Boarding House Reach, he also has the second biggest sales week of 2018. Per Billboard, only 3,000 of his 124,000 equivalent album units derive from streaming and individual track sales, which I’m sure warms White’s analog heart. The other 121,000 were traditional album sales, second only to the 242,000 Justin Timberlake racked up with Man Of The Woods. (Incidentally, our own Tom Breihan declares Boarding House Reach and Man Of The Woods the two worst albums he’s heard this year; at least he had fun reviewing them.)

White’s first-week total also adds up to the biggest debut for a rock album in 2018 so far and the biggest since U2’s Songs Of Experience opened with 180,000 units last December. Its 27,000 in vinyl sales represent the fourth largest sales week for the format since Nielsen implemented its SoundScan tracking system in 1991. And we should note for posterity that like almost every #1 album debut from a legacy artist these days, Boarding House Reach’s sales total benefitted from an album/ticket bundle deal in which people who bought a ticket to see White’s upcoming tour could redeem a free copy of the new album as well. Welcome to the future, Jack White!

There are no further debuts in the top 10, the rest of which proceeds in this order: XXXTentacion, Black Panther, The Greatest Showman, Migos, Logic, Post Malone, Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, Camila Cabello.

Over on the Hot 100, Drake’s “God’s Plan” rules for a 10th straight week, making him the sixth overall act and first male solo artist to score two 10-week #1 hits. (His first 10-week #1 was “One Dance.”) Billboard also reports that “God’s Plan” is just the 36th song in the history of the Hot 100 to spend double-digit weeks at #1 and one of only five songs to spend its first 10 weeks at #1. (The other four: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day”; Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind 1997″/”Something About The Way You Look Tonight”; Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112’s “I’ll Be Missing You”; and Adele’s “Hello.”)

Remaining at #2 is Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be,” followed by Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse” at #3 and Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #4. Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” falls to #5, while BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive” climbs back to #6. Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” is at #7. Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday” rises to a new #8 peak, while the also-execrable XXXTentacion’s “Sad!” drops to #9. Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana” closes out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Tinashe – “Me So Bad” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign & French Montana)
Still very excited for Joyride, but I hate to see Tinashe and Ty$ lowering themselves to generic tripe like this. (Generic tripe like this is French Montana’s native environment.)

Hayley Kiyoko – “What I Need” (Feat. Kehlani)
Disney Channel alum and so-called “lesbian Jesus” Hayley Kiyoko dropped her full-length debut this week. I haven’t gotten to dig all the way into it, but judging by this perfectly decent duet with Kehlani, the album is more pioneering for social than musical reasons. That said, I wouldn’t be mad about hearing “What I Need” on the radio.

Ne-Yo, Bebe Rexha, & Stefflon Don – “Push Back”
The last Ne-Yo single was built around a sample from D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” and it was dope. “Push Back” is a lot more boilerplate — a copy of Drake copying African pop music — and as such, it’s something less than dope. I do have to acknowledge it was a genius move to match up Ne-Yo and Bebe Rexha, a king and queen of dentist-office waiting-room adult-contemporary pop.

Flo Rida – “Sweet Sensation”
As long as there are popular old songs to pillage, Flo Rida will never run out of material. Here he flips Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations” into something even more corn-syrupy.

Sabrina Claudio – “Don’t Let Me Down” (Feat. Khalid)
This is strictly OK. I am mainly sharing it so we can once again marvel at Khalid’s inability to turn down a collaboration.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift made a surprise appearance at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe and played some of her songs with her old collaborator Craig Wiseman. [The Tennessean]
  • Here’s the tracklist for Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy, out tonight. [Twitter]
  • Pink received a summons to testify in the ongoing lawsuit between Kesha and Dr. Luke. [TMZ]
  • Post Malone debuted the new song “Stay” at the Bud Light Dive Bar tour in Nashville. [The Tennessean]
  • A new Billboard feature revealed that Iggy Azalea has the name of her shelved sophomore album tattooed on her fingers and that her management staged an intervention because of her Twitter beefs. [Billboard]
  • Carly Rae Jepsen previewed a new song “This Love Isn’t Crazy.” [Twitter]
  • Here’s Charli XCX’s full performance dressed as Ed Sheeran on Lip Sync Battle. [YouTube]
  • Zedd gave Architectural Digest a tour of his $16M LA mansion. [Facebook]
  • The Chainsmokers released a video for their pointedly titled “Everybody Hates Me.” [YouTube]
  • David Guetta and Sia released a video for “Flames,” but it’s only kinda flames. [YouTube]
  • Rae Sremmurd’s new triple-album will feature Pharrell, the Weeknd, Future, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and rapping by Zoë Kravitz. [Rap-Up]
  • Nicki Minaj appears in this new Mercedes-Benz commercial. [YouTube]
  • Logic performed with Marshmello on Ellen. [Ellen]
  • Eminem released a bloody video for “Framed.” [YouTube]
  • Kylie Minogue released a not-so-bloody video for “Stop Me From Falling.” [YouTube]
  • On Easter Sunday, Justin Bieber told his Instagram followers that Jesus has set him “free from bondage and shame” and that Easter is “not about a bunny.” [Instagram]
  • About that last Bieber post… April Fool’s. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME