In just under a year, Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, has seen one of the most rapid ascents into music’s upper echelons in recent memory. Completely unknown at the start of 2011, Tesfaye began making huge waves in late March with the release of his debut mixtape House of Balloons, which quickly garnered all manners of acclaim including a Polaris Music Prize nomination in his native Canada. Since then, he’s dropped another acclaimed mixtape, and he’s worked alongside Drake, specifically on this year’s much-lauded Take Care. (He also was named our Rookie of the Year a couple weeks back, too.) Still, it’s easy to forget that The Weeknd has yet to release a proper album.
Echoes of Silence, then, acts as a fitting conclusion to the trilogy Tesfaye began back in March of this year. Combining the sunless atmospherics of Balloons and Thursday‘s disillusioned self-consciousness with his considerably improved lyrical prowess and the experience that came with Tesfaye’s much-discussed fraternizing with fellow Toronto native Drake, it’s The Weeknd’s most concentrated effort to date and one that sets the bar inordinately high for that imminent debut album. Kicking off with a huge, clattering rework of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”, Echoes finds Tesfaye quick to align himself with the King of Pop, music’s most unanimously beloved and accessible star. It’s a fairly faithful and straightforward cover that does well to both showcase Tesfaye’s mad pipes and draw parallels between the song’s debauched narrative and the depraved tales of drugs and sex that’ve become The Weeknd’s most immediately recognizable trademark.
The mixtape also highlights the huge strides Tesfaye has made since both of his prior outings. Where Thursday faltered was where it sought to explore the lifestyle that came with Tesfaye’s newfound fame, occasionally coming off as rather reactionary as he bemoaned the pitfalls of his new lifestyle. Here, he’s much more assured, as on ”Same Old Song”, one of this tape’s best tracks, where he sings lines like: “You never thought that I would ever go this far/You said potential could never last this long” and “Well, you can take another shot every time you hear me playin’ in the club.” Led along by Tesfaye’s delivery that’s somehow simultaneously cocksure and forlorn, the track plays like a prequel of sorts to Drake’s “Marvin’s Room”, though most of its emotional impact is undermined by a half-baked guest skit from Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J, which ends up having the same effect as Chris Rock’s imbecilic feature spot at the end of Yeezy’s heart-rending “Blame Game” on last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Elsewhere on Echoes, Tesfaye and his producer Illangelo bring the muted experimentalism they’ve only previously touched upon full circle. The pair’s readiness to warp and mutate Tesfaye’s stunning falsetto, an element that most producers wouldn’t dare tamper with, has been one of The Weeknd’s most compelling qualities – and one that’s present here in full effect. Tracks such as “Outside” and the markedly straightforward closer “Echoes of Silence” leave his vocals untouched, while “Initiation” and “Montreal” find it distorted and modulated to great effect, and occasionally even beyond recognition. Tesfaye and Illangelo have found a comfortable midpoint between Balloons’ bleak, minimal production and the more nuanced moments on Thursday, a hallmark they reach in the one-two punch of “XO/The Host” and “Initiation”.
Opening to a spare, muffled synth line, “XO/The Host” recalls the finest points on House of Balloons in the big, stuttering beat and Tesfaye’s memorable refrain before muted blasts of distorted power chords creep into the mix around the halfway point. A tripped-out synth leads into “The Host”, the suite’s second half which in turn transitions seamlessly into “Initiation”. The warped banger showcases the production talents of Illangelo and Dropxlife (of The Weeknd’s XO crew) who frame Tesfaye’s pitch-bent croon in sinister, creeping bass. The mixtape’s final track – the aforementioned “Echoes of Silence” – makes for a fitting conclusion to the drama, swirling with ghostly piano and synths around an oddly wistful Tesfaye vocal.
When all’s said and done, Echoes of Silence remains The Weeknd’s third consecutive effort that is thoroughly compelling and impeccably produced. There’s little to deny of this three-act play in 2011: Tesfaye has explored some of the dankest, darkest corners of our world, and thus has crafted some of the most compelling and captivating music for its genre. What’s more, it’s all been free for download. How’s that for a bargain? To paraphrase one Roger Daltrey, we’d pay any price just to get you.
Essential Tracks: “XO/The Host”, “Initiation”, and “D.D.”