It was a letdown to find out that Abel Tesfaye meant “the Weeknd,” his nom de R&B, to be pronounced “the Weakened,” not “the Weekend.” “The Weekend” matches the mood and themes of his first album, House of Balloons, which both lyrically and sonically evokes that liminal hour in the early morning between the end of the after-afterparty and the point where your brain squeezes out its last tiny drops of serotonin and shuts itself off. (Not to mention the spelling makes more sense that way.) “The Weakened” just sounds like a metalcore band with a synth player.
Also somewhat disappointing: the follow-up to House of Balloons, called Thursday, which came out August 18 (like its predecessor, it’s available as a free download from the-weeknd.com). There are a number of reasons this might be. Maybe it’s simply a sophomore slump. Maybe Tesfaye, Doc McKinney, and Illangelo—the latter two produced both albums and are so essential to their sound that any talk of the Weeknd should include them—are saving the good stuff for later, having no doubt received lots of offers to do paid work since Balloons became an overnight hit with critics, artists, and other tastemakers after its release in March. Or maybe they’re already starting to burn out.
I don’t buy the argument that the Internet is ruining people’s capacity to form coherent thoughts or communicate without using emoticons, but it’s certainly changed the way a lot of them—maybe most of them, at least in the developed world—listen to music. When you’ve got a staggering percentage of the entirety of modern recorded music only a few keystrokes away, it’s an invitation to gluttony, and more and more listeners have accepted that invitation. That makes competing for their ears even more difficult than it used to be, especially if they’re hip-hop fans or hipsters (basically the people who’ve latched onto the Weeknd so far), both of which are notably musically voracious demographics.
If grabbing an audience’s attention is extra hard these days, then holding onto it is even harder. In more concrete terms this means artists are under pressure to release new music as constantly as they can. Hip-hop was ahead of the curve on this, and the promotional tactics it helped develop—remixes, mix tapes, frequent guest appearances—are now being used by all kinds of acts, from pop stars to indie-rock bands.
Some artists take well to the sort of prolificacy this entails. Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane (especially Gucci Mane) are as widely praised for the volume of their output as for its quality. And Kanye West has released three albums’ worth of new material in the past year, almost all of it good—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the G.O.O.D. Fridays singles he posted for free before that, and the full-length Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne—which puts him on a level with John Fogerty, who charted with three Creedence Clearwater Revival LPs in 1969 alone.
Others seem to wilt under the demand—and it looks like the Weeknd might be one of them. Thursday came out not quite five months after Balloons, and it sounds just that rushed. One of the things that made Balloons so stunning was how well it was put together—with daring, forward-looking sonic ideas fit to hooky songs (specifically “High for This” and “Loft Music“), it probably brought visions of gold records to more than a few A&R execs’ eyes. Thursday sounds half-dressed by comparison. The Weeknd’s trademarks—McKinney and Illangelo’s murky production, hints of dubstep crossbred with R&B, Tesfaye weaving back and forth across the line that separates the highest reaches of his tenor voice from the falsetto directly above it—are all present, but as a whole the record feels like it’s stuck in a holding pattern.
This isn’t to say there aren’t bright spots on Thursday. If it were packaged with Balloons as a double album, the Thursday tracks “The Birds (Part 1)” and “Lonely Star” might be its third and fourth singles. The song “Thursday” sketches the shape of Illangelo and McKinney’s dubstep/R&B hybrid—basically a re-evolution of late-90s UK two-step—in the fewest strokes possible. “Gone” sounds fascinatingly like a Kanye Pro Tools session with 90 percent of the tracks muted, though at eight minutes it’s about twice as long as it needs to be.
Then there are the missteps, which drag down everything around them. The weed ode “Rolling Stone” is another stab at minimalism, but in this case it just feels unfinished—which is a shame, because if someone filled out the song’s instrumentation (so it didn’t consist of a lone fingerpicked guitar) and gave it more than the merest suggestion of a beat, it could be huge, or at least this week’s must-have track to jack for rap mix tapes. The best thing I can say about “Life of the Party” and “Heaven or Las Vegas,” though, is that they aren’t the worst things to happen when someone tries to mix reggae and industrial rock.
It will soon become clear whether the need to balance productivity and quality is the Weeknd’s Achilles’s heel: their next full-length, tentatively titled Echoes of Silence, is scheduled for release this fall, completing a planned trilogy of albums. (Maybe their real weakness is overambition?) If the record’s any better than Thursday, the Weeknd will be fine. People forget your mistakes these days just as fast as they do your successes.