“I just wanna take you there.” These were the first words we ever heard from Abel Tesfaye, uttered in a sinful, irresistible whisper over a warped-out fairytale score backed by lurching 808s. This was in 2011, when the Canadian high school dropout was still in the midst of a perfectly crafted mystique — a veiled internet auteur existing in the same prodigious moment alongside his equally elusive peers Jai Paul and Frank Ocean. He taunted us on the portentous opening lines of another one of his earliest singles: “You don’t know what’s in store/ But you know what you’re here for.”
True to his word, the Weeknd took us to places we weren’t yet accustomed, unearthing unknown landscapes both sonic and thematic from the depths of his most unfiltered id. Over the course of three full-lengths in the span of a single calendar year, Tesfaye cultivated a distinct washed-out aesthetic with producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo, one seeping in melancholic narcissism that recast our cultural landscape under a dark storm cloud like a relentless Toronto downpour.
At the onset of this legendary run of mixtapes — a hot streak on the level of Lil Wayne’s 2007 or Future’s 2015 — no one was quite sure whether the Weeknd was a single visionary, a producer-singer team-up, or an entire collective. The buzz from the project’s anonymity was instrumental in defining the fervent reception to its early singles, catapulting it to such an ascendent state of hype that outlets ranging from Pitchfork to the New York Times bought in before knowing who or what they were hearing. That rapid rise infamously obstructed Tesfaye’s original musical partner Jeremy Rose from receiving credit or payment for his definitional groundwork on the project until the Weeknd signed to a major label. Although Rose was never involved beyond those first few tracks, his sepia-toned, industrial soul laid the foundation for what the Weeknd’s sound would become in the hands of Tesfaye and his future collaborators.
As with a number of the most influential soundmakers of this decade, the Weeknd’s widespread impact on pop music took a shortcut via Drake, who began with Tesfaye the practice of stylistic embezzlement that would come to define his empire going forward. The Weeknd opened for Drake at shows before becoming a full-on collaborator when he contributed to five songs on the rapper’s landmark Take Care. While Drake undoubtedly drew inspiration from Kanye West, House Of Balloons is the more specific blueprint he referenced to construct the most engrossing phase of his career — the inspiration for him becoming more sinister, insular, and, paradoxically, singular. Prior to adopting their symbiotic relationship, Drake’s attempts at a post-rap/R&B cross-strain took shape in the likes of the blocky electro-pop of “Find Your Love.” But Take Care turned inward Drake’s attempts at chart-crossing hybridity into something that didn’t resemble any genres at all.
The Weeknd’s individualistic imprint made him the only Drake co-sign to escape the OVO orbit and establish his own center of gravity. He’s now expanded the role he served for the rapper as the go-to collaborator for all artists who want to push their music into the same outer reaches of excess. From cameos on Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade to some of Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey’s most sultry hits, the Weeknd’s narcotic-fueled nihilism has had a groundswell of influence on modern pop music, well before he became the pinnacle of modern pop himself. On his way to that status he made a point to work with deep-end icons like Future and Travis Scott on their own broodingly hedonistic singles, bringing up an entire crew of like-minded artisans to collectively reign in alignment and uncontested.
The most remarkable quality then of the Weeknd’s improbably influential debut is that it sounds entirely distinct, unlike anything that preceded it and nothing that rose in its wake. House Of Balloons is one of those albums that arrives every few years and maps out the future of music without anyone ever coming close to realizing the vision it laid forth — a companion of Stankonia or last year’s Pop 2. Tesfaye’s greatest feat was in imparting a magnificently malicious mood that elevated contradiction to divinity. It’s sex music for the disaffected, party music for the lonely — suggesting emptiness as a means to self-actualization. Twisting shaggy punk and dream-pop samples into cavernous bedroom music, House Of Balloons’ tales of vampiric one-night stands and drug-addled romance were so self-assured and shameless as to resemble more closely biblical tales illustrating the origin of sin and salvation.
Or perhaps even more remarkable than the Weeknd presenting tales of debauchery as something almost indistinguishable from devotionals was him pulling off the same trick three times in nine months. Both Thursday and Echoes Of Silence expanded in subtle ways on the Weeknd’s world-building palette of muted drums and samples that dripped like rainfall, the former sharpening his edges with bold, illustrious distortions and the latter playing in novel ways with rhythm and space, inverting classics like Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” through brash attitude much in the same way he’d later do with Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love.”
Most thrillingly, those iconoclastic soundscapes evolved in real time with the development of the Weeknd’s anti-hero persona. With each release he let us in deeper while maintaining a tighter grip, revealing strategic layers to his psyche that gave hints but never clarified the line between damaged and deranged. He began to offer us in piecemeal the origins of his motives and the personal aftermath of their outcomes, but he rarely revealed any notions of remorse or hesitation — so the more we knew the more questions we had, and the more we had to know.
Then over the course of his next three albums, as the Weeknd’s shtick settled from revolutionary to the regular, we became well-versed in the life and times of Abel Tesfaye. We know him not just as a versatile pop-polymath, but an H&M ambassador, a celebrity romancer, and now a Coachella headliner. The last of those achievements marks something of the final cultural touchstone the Weeknd has left to conquer before the project’s rapid evolution from underground curiosity to mainstream icon is complete. While his sixth full-length Starboy found Tesfaye overdosing on his own hype to diminishing returns — and was the third in a non-Trilogy trio of chart-minded caricatures of the sound that once captivated our collective consciousness — his inscrutable allure has still almost entirely remained, largely due to his unwillingness to waver from his subject matter even as his sonics get muddled from his once strict vision.
Which is why when he decided to drop his latest My Dear Melancholy, in a pseudo-cryptic fashion, there was palpable excitement that he’d deliver, and that even if he didn’t the result would be worth the listen — especially after Travis Scott described the then-unknown collection as more in line with the Weeknd’s early penchant for “scary” than the flat recreations of such he culled together with Max Martin and co. That assessment proved approximately half-right, in that My Dear Melancholy, liberally borrows from the hallmarks of the Weeknd we originally got to know — making use of lustrous tempos and atmospheric harmonies — but is also clearly a new iteration of that sound, one a little lighter, limber, and less guarded.
Where My Dear Melancholy, most departs from any point in the Weeknd’s discography is in just how hopelessly sad it is, which isn’t perhaps unwarned given the melodramatic title, but is still shocking to hear in any case. I mean, dude. The Weeknd’s often been painted and largely paints himself as a heartbreaker, but he’s normally degrading his own spirit in his process of turning everything he touches into coal. Here he’s presenting himself not as the one causing the damage, but almost entirely on the receiving end of what sounds like a nasty uncoupling, to the extent he’s dropping lyrics nodding to suicide alongside accusations of betrayal. It’s a new look, driving the man who’s always danced around sad boy signifiers straight over the cliff of exasperated sorrow via lines like “I don’t wanna wake up if you ain’t layin’ next to me.”
But damn, whether a stop gag teaser of what the Weeknd’s next phase is going to look like or a comprehensive collection of his current artistic interests, this thing is some majestic trip of ripened gloom. The Weeknd doesn’t get buried by his sadness, but rides out those feelings into tidal waves of scorched-earth funk and robo-dystopian balladery. Songs like “Wasted Times” and “Try Me” suggest the glossier sounds the Weeknd was reaching for on Starboy can naturally coexist alongside his more unique specialties, where as the two Gesaffelstein-helmed tracks are blistering things of the utmost beauty.
That type of strategic team-up suggests the Weeknd’s keen eye hasn’t blurred with fame, and that we’re not mistaken to place our expectations in him continuing to show us new shades of the unknown. This point at the current zenith of his commercial career, as his artistry seems to be picking up into another hot streak, is an appropriate moment to reflect on all those classic singles that placed our expectations so high in the first place — the songs where he most unequivocally took us there.
10. “Coming Down” (from House Of Balloons, 2011)
When the Weeknd’s apologizing, he’s not really apologizing, and “Coming Down” is his masterclass in wielding repentance as a weapon of manipulation. Where at first glance the song comes across as a sobered-up admission of regret and reaffirmed loyalty to a steady partner, the Weeknd’s implications are as reckless and sinister as in the rest of his oeuvre. He doesn’t feel guilt for his actions, but that sense of whiplash isolation that follows the morning after a night of fast-paced ecstasy like the one depicted on the preceding House Of Balloons two-part saga “The Party & The After Party.” His despondency would almost read as pathetic if it wasn’t actually subversive. It’s not that his affection for his subject is masked when he’s “faded,” but that it only appears when he’s “all alone,” as he murmurs for sympathy across the track. “I always want you when I’m coming down” isn’t a sentiment derived from a clear-headed realization; rather, it’s in fear of no one being present to catch him on his way down.
That freefall into reality is met with a synthesizer that feeds like a fog machine and crawling strings that creep sinuously up your spine. That wilting atmosphere never settles throughout the song, conjuring a perpetual unease that distorts our perceptions of who actually controls the most power in the depicted codependency. Although the Weeknd may seem to be manipulating his girl with classic “I swear this time it’s true” rhetoric, there’s a tense pleading to his vocals that suggest his cyclical return is testament not only to how much he expects to get away with, but also to how strong of a hold her hypnotism has on him, especially at his psychological nadir. That state of play makes “Coming Down” — particularly the original pre-mastered version featuring an enlightening Japanese sample from the anime Fate/Stay Night — one of the most tectonic tracks from a catalogue full of them, a self-centered balancing act on less than steady footing.
9. “King Of The Fall” (standalone single, 2014)
“King Of The Fall” is five minutes of uninterrupted flex without breaking a sweat — a tour de force of all the places the Weeknd’s voice can go. A loosie following the trying Kiss Land, “King Of The Fall” immediately brought back into the fold any fans who worried Abel was losing his edge. He spends the first half racing through clips of proud shit talk, before slowing down at the break into a half-speed of mellifluous, floating braggadocio. Unlike almost every other rap-adjacent figure who proclaims themselves untouchable, the Weeknd proves himself to be actually peerless, because he’s both a better singer and rapper than a majority of his weight class.
Of his many visceral one-liners, we have the musical legacy comparisons (“On some young Quincy Jones, dark skin Michael Jackson”), the ethnic double-entendres (“‘Bout to leave the crib with a couple of my pirates”), and the hometown put-ons (“Them fall shows every year like a birthday/ And I’mma do it every year in my birthplace”). That’s all before he cruises the simmering DaHeala beat — flashing with color-coordinated opulence like a prime Hype Williams video — with an outro solely comprising repetitions of “I make all of them swallow,” a casual display of supreme nastiness. “King Of The Fall” was intended as pure victory lap, but coming off of a major label slump it read as a statement of intent. Looking back now, its historical place is that of the Weeknd outlining for himself his uncontested position in culture.
8. “Starboy” (from Starboy, 2016)
During the Weeknd’s formative months under Jeremy Rose’s oversight, Tesfaye originally freestyled over the producer’s instrumentals as often as he crooned. Although that period of rapping was short-lived and rapidly abandoned for the vandalized pop we’ve grown accustomed to, hip-hop has always been intertwined in both Tesfaye’s lyrics and vocal approach. But where most rappers would drop a line as sneering and disrespectful as “Main bitch out your league too, ah/ Side bitch out of your league too, ah” with imposing hostility, Tesfaye slides through it with pitch perfect elegance. Few Weeknd songs stray far from Tesfaye’s core values, but “Starboy” is the Weeknd distilling those trademarks into his own theme music (with a little help from a deft Daft Punk production). It also doubles as an instantly-iconic signature rap track, in the vein of “My Name Is” or “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” that announces in stark focus everything you need to know about the MC; one to serve as the perennial initial point of entry into the rest of his catalog.
Everything that makes the Weeknd the Weeknd is here undiluted. Drugs as a coping mechanism? Check. Recklessness presented as a measure of extreme faith? Check. Love defined by mutually assured destruction? Of course. Although released in tandem with the unveiling of the Weeknd’s new look (sans his trademark overgrown locks) and visuals of him slaying his former self, the single wasn’t so much a departure as a purification stripping away anything inessential to his image. Unfortunately the album by which it came attached proved to be the exact opposite, spreading the Weeknd’s strengths too thin across a smorgasbord of styles. But before it would prove a fallacy, the vision the Weeknd shared on “Starboy” suggested the utopian ideal for a project inspired by dystopia.
7. “The Birds Pt. 1″ (from Thursday, 2011)
The Weeknd wields love selfishly, and often maliciously, but nowhere in his catalogue did he make love sound as much like an actual battlefield as he did on “The Birds Pt. 1,” which features war-ready tribal drums and is built around the foreboding warning “don’t make me make you fall in love.” What would ring as cartoonish exaggeration by other artists is genuinely unsettling for the Weeknd, as he delivers his come-ons like warnings without nary a wink or embellishment, highlighting an improbable ability to wear misanthropy with style. You can now see that combative down-tempo detachment all over radio today, embodied by new-school adaptations of the Weeknd’s sound by the likes of 6lack and dvsn.
But there’s still no substitute for the source material. While most of the music on the Weeknd’s original Trilogy stretches out well past the five-minute mark, with Tesfaye lingering beneath the surface to add subtle color to each tracks moodscapes, “The Birds” comes in and out at a comparably compact three and a half. Here he sits boldly at the forefront, surfing over pulsating blacklights interspersed between a percussive thump turned hailstorm, flipping his voice between a coo on the verses and a roar on the choruses. “Can’t you see? This won’t mean a thing to me,” he opens coldly. He doesn’t want you to fall in love, but with every vocal run he’s taunting you to come closer, to allow him to take you over the edge and let go, shaking his head as you inevitably sink below.
6. “I Was Never There” (from My Dear Melancholy, 2018)
Had Tesfaye written “I Was Never There” at the start of his career, it would almost certainly be a seven-minute song. That oscillating air horn intro would have been buried within the mix, swirling within that blend of grayscale clouds and pitched-down thunderclaps, rather than starkly framed at the front. The title would be split into parts, something like “It Won’t Matter/I Won’t Make It,” and instead of giving only two minutes to each half — the first a thudding, haggard slow-jam, the second I can best describe as an arcade game thrown into the ocean and crying out to be rescued — he’d pull the entire song apart from the inside and luxuriate in all the empty space to fill every crevice.
But there’s no way a song like “I Was Never There” could have existed at the start of the Weeknd’s career. This is the Weeknd going deep within himself, working out in real time his emotional state in the aftermath of the action, as opposed to sharing with us the circumstances that we would have presumed would lead to such a haunted inner psyche. Rather than carnal lust, “I Was Never There” is all self-defeating longing, pushing the Weeknd the closest he’s ever been to emo music. But whereas an emo band at their worst might impart their heartbreak with temperamental scorn, Tesfaye is downright meditative in his misery. “When it’s time, when it’s time, when it’s time/ It won’t matter (it don’t matter),” he sings with equal parts dejection and zen, sounding like an explorer turned philosopher after a life-altering journey.
The other reason “I Was Never There” wouldn’t have been possible during the Weeknd’s Trilogy days is Gesaffelstein. The French DJ is perhaps best known in these circles for his contribution to Yeezus, but is generally an unrivaled force for turning harsh bursts of noise into unexpected post-EDM pop. He pulls that trick off again here, but in a remarkably novel way, unfolding seamlessly into the Weeknd’s open-source aesthetic that makes it sound like canon, where the bevy of producers on Starboy couldn’t help but leave their fingerprints all over the tracks in a way that reduced them to fan-fiction — what others wanted the Weeknd to sound like for themselves. “I Was Never There” feels like a natural growth, an exciting nexus that sheds the adolescent layers and reaches into a promising, uninhibited future.
5. “Can’t Feel My Face” (from Beauty Behind The Madness, 2015)
Tesfaye is a disciple of MJ. He’s been vocal about the influence of the King Of Pop on his work, both in interviews and when actually covering Jackson’s music on his albums. But while the Weeknd’s voice carries a similar resonance and is also malleable enough to make dynamic even the most simple utterances, his music has rarely shared a sonic identity with even Jackson’s darkest tunes. Where Bruno Mars has made it a mission to make each of his singles feel as inclusive and of an event as Michael in his heydey, the Weeknd has never tried to aspire to that level of widespread cultural saturation. If anything, the Weeknd is sort of the anti-Bruno Mars: a student of the same teacher, but instead of hoping to carry forth the torch from the past to the present, he intends to use it to burn down the line connecting the two.
As a rule reflected by the contents of this list, the Weeknd is at his best when writing songs that don’t conform to the standard sounds or structures of pop music. Tesfaye’s dead-eyed maleficence doesn’t exactly translate into intergenerational bops, even at the rare times he sets out for nothing more than pastiche, which is why even the enormously pleasant “I Feel It Coming” fails to reach the heights it aspires to. Danger is intertwined into the rapture of the Weeknd, and setting that aside for the common denominator means that at best you’re left with a good song anonymous from the far more interesting icon at the center. But when the Weeknd can retain his unique brand of danger while still reaching for common ground, he manages to light the wells of influence he taps into oil fires.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is a bombastic jam, but also a nuanced production. There’s the rising fervor of Tesfaye’s voice right before the chorus, which reaches into a black hole and pulls all the music into a vacuum before collapsing outward into that steadily rippling hook. There’s more of Daft Punk in this song than either of the Weeknd’s singles actually produced by Daft Punk, presenting an alternate history of what “Get Lucky” might have been if Abel had gotten to it before Pharrell. The Weeknd’s strengths lie in being able to twist darkness into something not only palatable, but exciting in spite of knowing better, which is why the song can coexist peacefully as both a delirious ode to a love of cocaine and a starstruck anthem for indulging on the night. Represented here at its finest, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a rare breed of smash hit: one beloved by stoners and soccer moms for entirely different reasons. Now that’s universal appeal. Eat your heart out, Bruno.
4. “Rolling Stone” (from Thursday, 2011)
“Rolling Stone” begins with a jarring juxtaposition, rupturing through a thick cloud of distorted feedback with an Andre Nickatina-influenced finger-picked guitar that could pass for a beginners attempt at slowing down and practicing the tab for the Bob Dylan track the song alludes to. It’d almost seem amateurish if it wasn’t deeply expressive, bolstered by the minimal remainder of instrumental backdrop consisting of occasional rumbles, letting in just the slightest crack of light between blinds that don’t seem to have been raised in months. It’s a setting so stark in its austere clarity that it elevates Tesfaye’s classic self-mythologizing as his definitive self-portrait above the rest.
“And I’mma keep on smoking ’til I can’t hit another note,” he sings, presumably while leaning back in his chair and blurring out the camera with a deep exhale. He’s ruminating on his dedication, both that of achieving self-medicated nirvana and of furthering his mark on the world of music until either pursuit cripples him completely. But the two go hand-in-hand, as he counts on his fingers the time: “Until you’re used to my face/ And my mystery fades.”
In that way, “Rolling Stone” reads both as a digest of the Weeknd’s essence and a premonition of what comes next. A series of lines like, “So baby love me/ Before they all love me/ Until you won’t love me/ Because they’ll all love me,” is equally fatalistic as it is egotistic, but within a sliver between the two it’s almost hopelessly romantic. “I hope I’m not different/ And I hope you’ll still listen,” he sings, the most vulnerable he’s ever sounded on record in a stuttering falsetto, before trailing on in a tumble of repetition the promise “I got you,” fading as the distortion from the beginning rises up again and swallows him completely.
3. “The Morning” (from House Of Balloons, 2011)
A fundamental misconception about the Weeknd is that his pursuits are entirely fueled by a world-burning self-indulgence. But growing up a homeless high-school dropout, Tesfaye’s always had his eye set on enterprising heights even if he makes time on the way for shallow detours. Given how casually he now runs through boasts about his mom grocery shopping “looking lavish,” it’s easy to overlook those humble bottomed-out origins. “The Morning,” one of The Weeknd’s earliest singles, is a time capsule of his hustle, and an ode to the glorious tomorrows you gradually will into shape by the work you put in today.
“The Morning” is the Weeknd’s take on the classic American road song. But rather than tumbleweeds and his trusty pick-up, his depiction of the highway to his end goal is lined with codeine cups, drinking Alizé with cereal, and the “walls kicking like they’re six months pregnant.” It’s some of the most vivid storytelling in his catalogue, flexing an intuitively skillful use of verbal ink that stains completely through the page. If a majority of the Weeknd’s early music was fixated on his sinking deeper into narrower spaces and blowing them out, “The Morning” is the clear outlier that’s almost inspirational in its commitment to Tesfaye’s larger ambitions.
“All that money, the money is the motive,” goes the self-made mantra. Tesfaye’s single-mindedness is born of curiosity, a product of being “a virgin to the money, a virgin to the fame.” With music, he seized the first relationship that promised him a shot at satisfaction, and “The Morning” evokes in warm hues and smooth tones that desire for living beyond the only world you’ve ever known. The beat sounds like a sun teetering on the edge of setting, with Tesfaye driving the chorus into the horizon. He’s still balancing the transition (“Cali is the mission/ Visit every month like I’m split life living”), but that’s only furthering his intentions, fueling a motivation that comes from having your feet wet in your dream such that it’s just a matter of when you’re ready to brace the surface and dive in completely.
2. “Tell Your Friends” (from Beauty Behind The Madness, 2015)
Kiss Land was the Weeknd’s rebranding as a slightly more palatable bad boy for mainstream audiences, and the soundtrack singles and opening stint for Justin Timberlake were part of that rapid scrubbing of everything that made him originally exciting. Tesfaye had been repositioned as a naughty balladeer just risqué enough to entice without excluding your parents, becoming something of the musical equivalent to the Fifty Shades Of Grey franchise he leveraged for wider appeal. The album abandoned Illangelo and Doc McKinney and replaced their fearless industrial R&B with DannyBoyStyles’ inoffensive, uninspired attempts to recreate it. The result elicited about all the arousal of an air freshener.
Finally popular but lacking his previous potency, the Weeknd pivoted back to his prior tactics for Beauty Behind The Madness, which essentially ignored the previous album’s existence to rewrite the Weeknd’s mainstream debut. This time he wouldn’t tone it down, a mission statement the bulldozing bass that opens the album’s lead single “The Hills” made readily clear. “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me,” Tesfaye glared to America’s masses, and the rest of the song similarly didn’t mince words in depicting the Weeknd’s soulless hedonism. As ever, we were entranced by the gratuitous flaunting of his personal demons.
But the best of Tesfaye’s returns to form was stuffed away deeper in the LP, contained in the Kanye-produced headrush that is “Tell Your Friends.” Over the course of nearly six minutes of blissed out chords crashing into one another like breaking waves, the Weeknd unleashes the most glorious run of shit-talking and mythology-building of his entire career. He writes off what he admits was a period of stage-setting compromise, reaffirming his present focus: “Last year I did all the politickin’/ This year I’m all focused on the vision.” He then goes on to revisit the difficult underpins of his origin story (“I was broken, I was broke, I was so broke/ I used to roam around the town when I was homeless”) before painting in stark brushstrokes how things are now fucked up in different ways (“My cousin said I made it big and it’s unusual/ She tried to take a selfie at my grandma’s funeral”).
But all the stunting and reflecting are just accents to the song’s overarching claim: that Abel’s ascended to the standing of a living legend. He wants to be seen as symbol, as a two-dimensional trope “singin’ ’bout poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches, livin’ life so trill.” But as a writer he’s far too developed to forgo his auteur’s instincts. Right before the track culminates over mournfully frenetic guitars that must have been left over from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Tesfaye glides into the final line of the verses, “They told me not to fall in love, that shit is pointless,” before getting stuck on the thought. He repeats it to himself, as though trying to break through any residual disbelief: “Yeah, that shit is pointless.” As self-assured as he projects to be, the entire rise of Tesfaye from living on the streets to cruising through “the West End in my new Benz” is as much of a trip to himself as anybody. Rather than a taunt, the hook of the song reads more as a request. Go tell your friends about it; that all of this actually happened.
1. “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” (from House Of Balloons, 2011)
Sandwiched between the three introductory songs the Weeknd let loose before revealing House Of Balloons to the world, the split-single title track was the first new material we heard upon running through the album, and the moment the artist’s vaporous hype that had the Internet in an anticipatory hysteria materialized into something undeniable. Tesfaye’s impeccable taste was already well documented by the twin-Beach House and Aaliyah samples that dotted his debut, but he proved his ear to be more eclectic than expected with his cinematic depiction of a hallucinogenic party gone diabolical set to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1980 single “Happy House.” The Weeknd drowns the original track in its own reflection under funhouse synthesizers and buzzing wide screen effects, spinning the sarcastic hook into something not unlike a psychedelic dirge.
And that’s just before the midpoint, when the impeccably constructed porcelain tower of sonics all comes crashing down into “Glass Table Girls,” a lurid fever dream of a highly specific drug-fueled sexual bender. It’s a virulent depiction of vice that’s impossible to turn away from, the result of the man conducting all the chaos. Abel’s ability to sling rhymes about cocaine rivals that of Pusha T, though Tesfaye’s takes single in on the user rather than dealer experience. Every lyric paints a vivid scene of dissociative depravity, with an attention to detail both for the surreal (“Nights pass so much quicker than the days did”) and the realities that ground them (“Same clothes, you ain’t ready for your day shift”). His contextual awareness of how every upper and downer fits into his characters’ narratives is the crux of why the Weeknd’s music has a more lasting resonance than his contemporaries’ countless ephemeral odes to that same “lifestyle” he leads.
But you’d be forgiven for failing to notice the Weeknd’s evocative penmanship in service of his frenetic delivery. “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” presents the full spectrum of Abel’s range, both as a singer and rhyme slinger. He can stretch demands out into moans that impose in equal measure as they arouse, off-set his harmonies over himself to conjure a dissonant chorus of heavenly disorder, and process his vocals to add grip to his forensic metering. Every syllable of this song is dictated with the utmost skill to follow each twist and turn of Illangelo and Doc’s crown jewel of a composition, one that mimics the sensation of chopped and screwed by sounding sloppy and bruised.
But to even attempt to take it in all at once would be like trying to capture the Sistine Chapel in just a single photograph; there’s just too much that lays beyond the foreground no matter what angle you approach from. “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” is the perfect realization of all the qualities this project strives to embody: existentialism, nihilism, sensuality, peril, and most importantly, aural stimulus. So every time you listen you can follow a different thread of consciousness that Abel’s operating on all at once, from the struggle to the ego to the toxic behavior to just simply the art form. The song is awe-inducing and almost entirely overwhelming, but that’s the Weeknd’s trademark: chasing sensations so extreme nothing else matters until the music stops.