The past few years have seen soul and R&B slowly make their way into the consciousness of experimental music, perhaps culminating with artists like Frank Ocean, The xx and James Blake. Yet The Weeknd has proved to occupy comfortably a middle-point between experimental (perhaps halfhearted) re-appropriation and R&B orthodoxy.
The Weeknd, solo project of Toronto musician Abel Tesfaye, has gained enough attention over the past year to garner quite a lot of critical acclaim with his mixtape trilogy (of which Echoes of Silence is the last installment). He’s garnered enough attention, at least, to catch the ear of fellow Canadian rapper Drake, earning him two guest spots on his latest album, Take Care.
Indeed, The Weeknd, beyond geography, is something of a kindred spirit of Drake’s — Drake’s latest work tends to focus on the isolation of fame and excess, and in return, The Weeknd deals with excess too, but the effect is far less personal, detached and all the more colder for it. In that regard, Echoes of Silence is the very peak of that aesthetic.
The lyrical subject matter of this release is, again, not unfamiliar to those acquainted with Drake: substance abuse, interpersonal detachment and sexuality. But whereas Drake tends to put his heart on his sleeve as to these matters, The Weeknd clouds them in both instrumental and vocal haze. Excess is dealt with in a stark dichotomy; it’s at once presented with regret and moroseness, and at the same time, pride and braggadocio. What is also missing, in this comparison, is the woes of fame that come, especially, with Take Care – the picture of the drawbacks of excess that The Weeknd draws is one that remains out of the spotlight, so to speak, hidden in its own shadow.
The result is a message of overwhelming confusion that can’t even find the stage to confess itself, carried by Tesfaye’s voice, which, it must be said, is by all accounts fantastic. It’s a voice that can whisper and croon with delicate, fragile finesse, and howl with the very same ease. Yet his voice is only one part of the vehicle of the underlying ideology of the music.
Instrumentally, then, the production that Tesfaye uses to surround all this delves into such alien and unknown depths that it’s astonishing. R&B is not particularly a genre known for experimentation; as opposed to other musical styles that have shifted in and out of sub-genres and reactionary movements over the decades, its retained a radio-ready format that while reliable becomes derivative. Echoes of Silence is drenched with fragile, dark atmospherics, notes and chords surging and contracting in the distance, echoing in and out as percussion rises and falls.
In this context, Tesfaye’s voice often comes through sounding distant and thus all the more tragic — or even more tragic when it seems to beget the very abyss that surrounds it. The result is a truly claustrophobic sound; just as neurotic and fascinating when it is at its most lush as it is at its most stark. In this way the music becomes a metaphor for the concurrent overwhelming and vapid environment of the emotional disarray that is a measured reflection on having far too much.
The high points on the mix tape serve to prove precisely where Tesfaye succeeds. It opens with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” which, if it weren’t for the pulsing, modernistic instrumental remake, could easily be mistaken for the original. In a faithful, yet respectful, mimic of Jackson’s voice, Tesfaye grounds the cover with welcome nostalgia, yet with wispy atmospherics, a roaring bass and drums that pound as if from some mournful other world, he propels the past bewildered into the future. “Montreal” which follows it takes the bombast that preceded it and subdues it, tranquilizing it within a new haze. The two tracks, in tandem, seem to show the sonic poles that The Weeknd embodies, powerful and enormous yet cloaked in worry, as if backed into a corner.
“The Fall” though, perhaps shows where there remains room for The Weeknd’s sonic conclusions to truly come to fruition. The track features production from Clams Casino, a producer who may be recognizable to those familiar with rappers like Lil B and A$AP Rocky, to whom he often lends his spacey, hazy beats. The production on this track, with its processing percussion and subtly swirling ambiance tops anything Tesfaye has produced himself. As good as it is, it exposes that the dark aloofness that Echoes of Silence embodies can go even further. We can only hope Tesfaye takes that step, into the implied abyss that his music surrounds.
Nonetheless, Echoes of Silence, as his Dirty Diania cover suggests, attempts to produce music fundamentally outside of time in two ways: both outside of history and outside of the moment. In this vantage point from above, in the still abyss, the bedlam below of one’s hedonistic revelry is viewed with nervous pride and quiet contempt. The next step, perhaps, is to sonically capture the fall that occurs from above to below.