"Trust me girl/You'll wanna be high for this," purrs a seducer near the beginning of this mysterious mix-tape debut. It's reasonable advice. A seamless, self-released concept album that set off an internet brushfire — complete with Twitter clues from evident co-conspirator Drake and Weeknd itself — it traces a woozy, debauched journey over nine slow jams that join the current conversation in hallucinatory r&b and indie rock: James Blake, Frank Ocean, jj, Salem, and Beach House. The latter even appear to get sampled here, twice: "Gila" bubbles up in "Loft Music," as does "Master of None" in "The Party & The After Party." (B-more, you have much to answer for.) The rest of the tracks are equally haunting: the rhythm of the aching "What You Need" is built around the surprisingly sad sound of what may be a straw sucking up the last drop of a milk shake — or something more potent.
Toronto singer Abel Tesfaye, who seems to be the entire group, has a striking high tenor: at points on "House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls," he sounds like Michael Jackson yelping into an intercom in a Propofol haze. It can all be disturbingly raw, even when — especially when — Weeknd overplay the tales of the tragic high life — check the plea "Bring the drugs, baby/I can bring my pain," on the killing, blue-black "Wicked Games." The wormy hooks and earnest falsettos suggest the possibility of ginormous hits if Weeknd were to clean things up a bit, both lyrically and sonically. But let's hope that doesn't happen too soon. (The production team was reportedly led by progressive Toronto hip-hop producers Martin "Doc" Mckinney and Illangelo.)
Listen to House of Balloons: