Not since the late '80s and early '90s (when Teddy Riley reanimated R&B and Ice Cube sniped, "You can New Jack Swing on my nuts!") or the late '90s (when Missy and Timbaland hit 'em wit da hee) has hip-hop felt so creatively outstripped by its more seductively inclined elder sibling. In 2011, the edgy, provocative action came from crooners, not spitters. Drake, Frank Ocean, Terius "The-Dream" Nash, and even indie sylphs like How to Dress Well, Balam Acab, Holy Other, and Purity Ring sent slow jams staggering down dark alleys, or crashing through glass coffee tables, or drifting into the unnerving ether.
But the freshest, most vexing new Prince of R&B was the Weeknd, a.k.a. inscrutable falsetto freakazoid and Toronto-based Drake confrere Abel Tesfaye, abetted by producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney. The Weeknd's two free mixtapes--House of Balloons and Thursday--dazzled with sophisticated songcraft; but even more astoundingly, Tesfaye embodied an utterly lost, toxic spirit. His songs descended into a lush, melodic fog, where a war of the sexes raged in a series of wooze-inducing scenarios, as if Requiem for a Dream had been played out entirely in a South Beach strip club's VIP-bathroom stall.
Like with Drake, some bemoaned the weary (unearned? entitled?) resignation in Tesfaye's songs, how his characters' blatant narcissism betrayed any basic social contract. But soul and R&B's bedrock essence remains its commitment to expressing the struggle between spirituality and carnality, and in 2011, that struggle involved Internet-mediated self-absorption, perverse fantasy, and anxious isolation, fueled by a veritable flotilla of drugs.
Objectively, we may not want to hear a song that sounds like it's luxuriating in our slo-mo crucifixion for every single sin that we've ever committed, as did Thursday's "Life of the Party," which idly pimp-slaps Nick Cave with a red right hand. But then again, you don't really know what you want, now, do you?C.A.