The release calendar for actual albums slows to a crawl in late December and early January, but the mixtapes never stop. If anything, they come even faster, for reasons I can’t begin to puzzle out. In the past couple of weeks, a ton of artists have cranked out some very good mixtapes. T.I., Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Squadda Bambino, Fabolous, and Raekwon have all cranked out tapes that are, at the very least, worthy. But I still went with the obvious choice here: The trilogy-completing work from the artist who, perhaps more than anyone else, showed the world what a mixtape can do in 2011.
House Of Balloons, the Weeknd’s first mixtape, was the one that grabbed us and plunged us into the group’s shadowy, queasy netherworld; if the Weeknd never do anything that powerful again, they could still have a pretty great career. As with so many other trilogies, the next two entries are devoted to exploring the world that the first one created — chasing ideas through its corners and crevasses, never attempting to replicate the impact of the original. The Beach House and Souxsie And The Banshees samples on House Of Balloons worked musically, but they also sent a message — dorks like us would have to take this group seriously. Echoes Of Silence opens with a very different meta-textual gambit: “D.D.,” a cover of Michael Jackson’s great paranoid sex-jam “Dirty Diana.” I love the shit out of “Dirty Diana,” and I’d rank it above “Beat It” and “Give In To Me” on a list of MJ’s greatest quasi-metal tracks. But even though Abel Tesfaye does a remarkable job channeling Jackson’s falsetto strain, “D.D.” doesn’t really work musically; it’s too blocky and clumsy. It does, however, place the Weeknd in a long lineage of soul-music anger-sex. It makes explicit a connection that’s always been there.
There’s another unexpected referential moment on Echoes Of Silence that speaks volumes: A quick drop from the on-fire Three 6 Mafia knucklehead-rap great Juicy J that, at first glance, doesn’t even come close to fitting with the mixtape’s musical flow. But even though the Weeknd and Juicy J couldn’t sound much more aesthetically different, they’re both making music about the same sort of feeling. They’re pursuing a glazed, malevolent sex-and-drugs oblivion. The only real difference is that the Weeknd is heading there with a sort of pained, guilty inevitability, whereas Juicy goes after it with cackling mirth. And so Juicy’s appearance is another coded signal: This is music about being so drunk and high and horny that nothing even makes sense. It’s music about a scary mental place.
“I ain’t scared of the fall,” Tesfaye sings over and over on “The Fall,” repeating it like a mantra even though he certainly sounds scared. There’s a sweet-little-kid aspect of his voice that’s absolutely crucial to the group’s music; it makes his whole persona both more palatable and more believable. He is, after all, the charming snake finding ways to convince women to make decisions that destroy their lives. On “Initiation,” he goes in stickier and heavier than he ever has, pulling his listener into a reality-warped hedonistic evening as his voice slows down and then speeds up, turning alien as it drifts out of focus. “The Fall,” with its drowning and hiccuping Clams Casino beat, achieves that same effect through music alone. This is the same territory that the Weeknd explored on their last two mixtapes, but it’s still fallow, and they always do fascinating things with it. The music on Echoes Of Silence is undeniably pretty and evocative; it sounded pretty great when I was crashed out on a living room couch, reading a book on Sunday afternoon. But it’s pretty music about about terrible feelings, and that visceral contrast still has plenty of juice.
Download Echoes Of Silence for free here.