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.
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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.