Whenever an artist promises a trilogy, strange things begin to happen to expectations. Back in the good old days, before every summer blockbuster tent-pole was envisioned as a trilogy from the outset, trilogies didn’t happen right away—they just sort of evolved, most of the time. Now, however, the idea of the trilogy speaks to audiences’ desires for bigger stories than can be contained by a single film. Maybe this is what The Weeknd was trying to tap into when it was announced that the project would release not one, not two, but three free-to-download “mixtapes” this year. As soon as the idea of a trilogy of dark r ‘n’ b for damaged psyches was proposed, audience anticipation for the second and third installments went off the charts. And why not? We still don’t have much of an idea about who The Weeknd is/are. We know that Abel Tesfaye sings, that Drake is a supporter (and on the new release, Thursday, a contributor), and that at least two different produces are involved with the project. But beyond that, all we have to go on are two albums full of darkly charged sexuality, emotional dysfunction, sad drug users, and uncomfortable seductions.
And while The Weeknd’s two albums—the previous release, House of Balloons, and the new one, Thursday—certainly feel like parts of a whole, there are important distinctions between them, distinctions that might tie back to the idea of the trilogy, and which might even point to a sort of narrative development (if not actual narrative) between the releases. Perhaps the most immediate difference noticeable on Thursday is that it is denser, heavier, and a little bit less accessible than its predecessor. The ghost-like vocal hooks are largely reigned in, and the emphasis shifts more directly to beats and arrangements. This is, perhaps, most apparent on “Life of the Party,” on which the beats are so heavy and mechanical, the layers of sound so sinister and artificial that, were it not for Tesfaye’s soulful croon, the cut wouldn’t sound out of place on a 90’s industrial record. This is an extreme example, though. “The Zone,” might be a more representative cut—Tesfaye’s vocals are front and center, his lyrics are painful and raw (“I’ll be making love to her through you/so let me keep my eyes closed,”), and the production has the vaguely haunted feel so prevalent on House of Balloons—but the arrangement’s layers are heavier, thicker, clearer, the beats and bass sound a little too clean, all of which adds up to an even more unsettling experience resulting from the disconnect of sound and subject matter. The song comes off so woozy that even Drake’s guest turn closing out the song feels uncomfortable and nervous, as if he is waiting for someone to break down his door.
And perhaps this unsettling quality is what drives Thursday—the album moves through different styles, keeping us at arm’s length with every turn. “Rolling Stone,” is acoustic guitar minimalism, “Gone,” builds around an otherworldly keyboard melody that sounds like a discarded scrap from Kid A, and “Heaven or Las Vegas,” is doom-laden dancehall reggae. That these three left turns comprise the album’s last three songs is a bold move—the stylistic shifts are so varied that we are forced to rely on Tesfaye’s voice and dark lyrics for stability. This is not an easy proposal, especially after heavier-than-heavy, pathos-gushing album centerpiece “The Birds” (parts one and two). Upon first hearing this two part song, I found myself considering how my ears had grown accustomed to hearing the “n-word” in pop music, but that in these songs the usage is so raw, honest, and self-deprecating that it was making me uncomfortable in a way I don’t feel when Ye and Jay drop it in “Niggas in Paris.” When Tesfaye howls, “Don’t you fall in love/Don’t make me make you fall in love/Don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigger like me,” over a throbbing arrangement and military-style drum cadence, the result is devastating.
But that is The Weeknd. And, while Thursday isn’t as immediate or accessible as House of Balloons, it might just be the stronger album. There is a hint of vulnerability in these songs, and that makes the darkness feel a little more real, a little bit darker. So we are left looking ahead to the next album, the final installment in this “trilogy” and wondering how it might bring resolution to The Weeknd’s 2011 journey. Ultimately, it seems that Thursday might be best revisited in the context of the three albums when the cycle is complete—maybe it will be the series’ Empire Strikes Back, a dark and desperate bit of connective tissue that raises the stakes and grounds The Weeknd’s work in something heavier than grainy, twisted fantasies and backroom seductions.