Recently, new R&B artists have been flirting with the Pitchfork-set. Armed with a bedroom mic set-up and Pro Tools, acts such as Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean and R. Kelly-meets-murky-lo-fi dude How To Dress Well have made names in the blogosphere for their unique takes on traditional love jams. Even buzz-act Toro Y Moi ditched his signature chillwave sound for a funky album of disco-groove R&B. All three artists have succeeded to an extent, but they lack the cohesion to make their discs essential.
Enter Toronto’s the Weeknd, who has the potential to make these elements click. (For what it’s worth, it pains me every time to not include the third “e.”) There are only a handful of tracks credited the 20(?)-year-old singer-songwriter, but they’re all excellent and immediately accessible, especially if you like your R&B with more edge than cheese.
The Weeknd’s quick rise to Internet fame (Drake co-sign, Pitchfork’s Best New Track distinction) proves how quickly the game is changing. Miss Info reports major label interest and co-signs from cool kids Diplo and Joey I.E. Before we know it, the Weeknd will release a mixtape and then sign a record deal. This is how the music industry works today.
Hype is fine (and necessary), but it’s pointless without real songs. The Weeknd’s new website has “Wicked Games” available for download, a sign that it’s the song he’s proud of most. It’s the most confident of the tracks, with a perfect mix that highlights the song’s exciting elements — creepy, singular guitar notes, lonely, dissipating piano notes, an undeniably sexy chorus. Just like a song by The-Dream, “Wicked Games” is sex music, made for action, not mere listening.
Other tracks don’t announce the Weeknd’s arrival as vividly as “Wicked Games,” but they don’t have to — they’re still fascinating. “What You Need” sounds most like How To Dress Well, with its heartbeat-808 and answering-machine vocals. But where How To Dress Well often sounds timid, as if sheepishly hiding from the music, the Weeknd always sounds in full control. “Loft Music” beautifully incorporates a Beach House sample, Mannie Fresh Casio drums and a quick, distorted guitar. Lyrically, weird, distinct details are dropped between typical come-ons: “Twist and turns, and the only girls that we f--- with seem to have 20 different pills in them.” It’s a sad aside, hinting at something sinister. None of these songs sound the same, but there is a common theme: the execution is always fresh, never rote. Labels, get your pitches ready.