On paper, The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons reads like a retread of How To Dress Well, another new-media-savvy act that shaded contemporary R&B with electronic and indie-rock aesthetics. But How To Dress Well’s lo-fi experiment was the work of a genre outsider infatuated more by the idea of R&B than its mechanics, while The Weeknd’s debut plays like an actual R&B record: Its slow jams smolder lustfully, building to rousing choruses from a vocalist who can really sing. Abel Tesfaye’s gripping voice distills Trey Songz’s pleading intensity, The-Dream’s bittersweet wistfulness, and Drake’s self-confidence in one package. Tesfaye breaks from radio sensibilities, though, by pushing the unrest and inner turmoil those singers periodically touch on to unsettling extremes. His persona is a much grimmer interpretation of the conflicted lothario: a churlish, hard-partying hedonist who cycles through an endless supply of pills, cocaine, and disposable women. (At his coldest, on “The Party & The After Party,” he introduces a new girlfriend with the preface “she’ll probably OD before I show her to Momma.”) House Of Balloons’ hook is its canny incorporation of indie-rock attitude into R&B songs. But Tesfaye’s lurid, unrepentant depiction of hard drugs and empty sex is what lingers long after the novelty of a couple of Beach House samples wears off.
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