Sex and drugs have long been both an implicit and explicit topic of R&B even before they euphemistically called it rock ‘n’ roll. But sex and drugs – particularly sex on drugs, and especially sex as a drug – has never before so extensively and exclusively defined a new singer-songwriter’s sonic palate the way it has for Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd, the 22-year-old shooting star who co-wrote and sang on parts of Drake’s Take Care. Self-released last year under the name The Weeknd as three separate mix tapes House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence and here presented as his major-label debut, remastered with three new tracks, Tesfaye’s Trilogy features 30 songs almost solely devoted to conjuring up the hallucinatory sights, sounds and spirit of psychotropic sport-fucking binges, as well as their ensuing physical and emotional fallout.
Over the course of nearly 160 minutes, Tesfaye consumes enough weed, coke, X, booze and cough medicine cocktails to kill a small army while boning enough strippers, pole dancers, groupies and slumming debutantes to breed a new one. Singing “We don’t need no protection,” in the first few moments of the opening track “High For This,” Tesfaye lets us know upfront that he’ll say anything to help him get erected. Rarely is love mentioned – this is its void, and often it’s nasty. On “The Knowing,” he refuses to wash his junk so his partner can taste where he’s been. In “The Party & the After Party,” he nicknames his new coke-addled consort Rudolph and intimates that if she stops giving him head, “I might get violent.” He freely admits in “Coming Down” that he uses his girlfriend like a drug to pick him back up again from his post-high comedown, but when gold diggers use his home or his fame in “Twenty Eight” and “Next,” he gets judgmental. Tesfaye in real life could be a nice guy, but the persona he projects is most certainly is not.
If he had ordinary lyrical talents or sang with the machoness his control-fixated mentality implies, or set his tales of conquest and vice to generic beats, the Weeknd would be little more than aural porn. But Tesfaye is a finely detailed storyteller with an eerie, ethereal voice that suggests Michael Jackson’s wounded inner child, and his multi-instrumentalist producers Doc McKinney (formerly half of Esthero) and Illangelo create a suitably soporific netherworld soundtrack that mixes rhythm-box R&B with slo-mo indie-rock, muted metal, and blunted EDM. Instead of the usual hip-hop, the Weeknd samples and quotes Siouxsie & the Banshees, Beach House, Cocteau Twins, Thieves Like Us, Martina Topley-Bird, France Gall, Cults and Georgia Ann Muldrow.
Despite those varied sources, the results offer little light or variation, and the sameness suits his dead-end illusions; only rarely does the career success he starts to enjoy toward the trilogy’s conclusion suggest a way out, and even that’s plagued by opportunists. The final song, “Till Dawn (Here Comes the Sun),” one of three newly recorded bonus tracks, is the only one that suggests something greater than despair. Lyrically, he’s all but convinced himself that his down-low affair with a previously committed woman will resolve in disaster, but the music rises to evoke buried hopes; here, at least, it dreams where he cannot.