Since Drake‘s October’s Very Own crew plugged a few Weeknd cuts in a blog post in 2010, Tesfaye has shied away from press, and his mainstream appearances were few and far between: a hook here, a sample there, a handful of live performances. Given how he’s ducked from the spotlight, it’s easy to feel as if we haven’t learned much about him. But Trilogy (out ), the reissue of those first three mixtapes, says more than enough. A sinister, seemingly Eyes Wide Shut-inspired swingers club fantasy, Trilogy unravels a broader story of indulgence (House of Balloons), addiction (Thursday) and sobering up (Echoes of Silence) that’s most devastating when swallowed whole.
The biggest difference between the original mixtapes and Trilogy (other than the three new songs) is just one sample — Aaliyah‘s “Rock the Boat” sample on fan favorite “What You Need” is nowhere to be found here. A smaller — but still key — difference is Tesfaye’s delivery. While he sounded ethereal on his initial recordings, and he tends to sing more forcefully in a live setting, Trilogy has Tesfaye toying more with subtlety. The best example is found on “Initiation”: in the original version, Tesfaye’s voice mutated back and forth between sounding like a monstrosity and sounding like Lil Wayne on purple drank. In Trilogy‘s remastered version, the vocal fluctuations aren’t as overt or violent, as if he’s trying to restrain himself. The difference is like comparing a fictional monster to Charles Manson; now, he sounds like someone who can exist among us.
What remains the same, though, is The Weeknd’s story. Producers-in-crime Don McKinney and Illangelo place Tesfaye’s voice in a realm that sounds inspired by trip-hop and forward-thinking producers like Burial and Static Major (Aaliyah) — a place that feels far more vast and cavernous than the two-story loft Tesfaye often describes. Every female voice is shot with helium, high-pitched and compressed, alien. In comparison, while a young voice like Tesfaye’s could easily conform to the mostly saccharine notions of contemporary R&B, Trilogy places this voice as bait to scenes of innocence lost— men leering at California-bound, drugged-up girls, a mother crying after finding drugs in her daughter’s dirty laundry.
In a Billboard interview published just yesterday, Tesfaye said that the process of obtaining sample clearances was “killing me.” The wait for these samples was worth it. From a cover of Michael Jackson‘s “Dirty Diana” to a sample of “Sandpaper Kisses” by trip-hop mainstay Martina Topley-Bird, to the chorus from “Laisse tomber les filles” (“Leave the girls alone”), a ’60s French pop hit that, ironically, Serge Gainsbourg wrote for his own Lolita — all of these samples amount to a backstory essential to understanding Trilogy. More than anything, The Weeknd draws inspiration from artists who toyed with popular forms of music by adding darker and vindictive, if not sinister, overtones.
It’s too early to tell whether The Weeknd will continue with this same approach. For now, the only clues we have are Trilogy‘s three bonus tracks, with a bare-bones approach and the mysterious Tesfaye at his most vulnerable. In “Twenty Eight,” he sings of being at her home, rather than his two-story loft. In “Till Dawn — Here Comes the Sun,” he sings even more softly of knowing her routine — how she’d wash away all traces of his stay from her sheets — and lingering in her bed, despite what he knows. “You’ll miss him, and you’ll hate me,” he sings. He sounds compromised but not unmasked, yet another promising and intriguing sign that The Weeknd’s story isn’t quite over.
Best Listened To: At night, as fans well know. Cue the start of House of Balloons at sunset, then hold on.
Full Disclosure: I only grew to appreciate Thursday after a few listens, but as the second part of Trilogy, it feels more necessary than ever.
Idolator Rating: 4.5/5
— Christina Lee