The Weeknd: Celebrating the Return of Mixtape Mode

With his latest extended playlist release, My Dear Melancholy, Canadian R&B/pop artist The Weeknd finds himself reverting to what I affectionately refer to as “Mixtape Weeknd”, a reference to the trilogy of mixtapes that he released between March and December of 2011. While The Weeknd has achieved commercial and critical success through his major albums Beauty Behind The Madness and Starboy, the style, mood, and lyricism The Weeknd finds in his mixtapes is in my mind undoubtedly more impactful and impressive than these two albums. I believe that in rekindling these qualities in My Dear Melancholy, The Weeknd has returned to prime form and found the sound and style that had such a large impact on hip-hop and pop music before anyone even knew who The Weeknd was.

The following playlist is created to help walk you through the different sounds of The Weeknd and to highlight the differences between what I’ll be referring to as “Mixtape Weeknd” and his less impactful attempts at reaching that space as an artist while also achieving commercial success:

First, it might be helpful to define what I mean by Mixtape Weeknd. Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, burst onto the music scene in 2011 with a series of mixtapes released over a nine-month period. The three mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence) were met with rave reviews, with the most notable response arriving to Thursday, which featured fellow up-and-coming Canadian hip-hop star Drake on “The Zone”. These three tapes featured The Weeknd brooding over mellow, bass-filled, and melodic beats that reached peaks and valleys reminiscent of the drugs he was consuming at that time. While “The Zone” may not seem very unique in 2018, it was extremely new and different in 2011; Drake was in the process of creating Take Care, and his brand of chilled out and sensuous music had yet to reach pop and hip-hop radio. In fact, one could argue that The Weeknd’s style in 2011 had a huge influence on Drake’s groundbreaking album, which contained a major feature from Tesfaye on “Crew Love”, Tesfaye’s backing vocals on “Good Ones Go Interlude” and “The Ride”, and writing credits for The Weeknd on “Shot For Me” and “Practice” … but I digress. The point is that “The Zone” sounds so basic in the scope of music in 2018 because this sound and theme that The Weeknd launched his career with now pervades most pop hip-hop in 2018, with popular examples including Lil Uzi Vert, Future, and ILoveMakkonen. These mixtapes also saw The Weeknd experiment with transitioning between two songs and themes on one track, as demonstrated by the seamless transition between beats on “The Party & The After Party” amongst other songs (an experiment Drake also chose to explore on Take Care’s “Cameras / Good Ones Go Interlude” … just saying).

Additionally, The Weeknd’s mixtapes experimented with different sounds that could blend within modern R&B, including the mostly guitar-based “Rolling Stone”, which creates a delicate undertone for The Weeknd’s love lust, and the chopped-and-screwed “Initiation”, which simulates the highs and lows of different party drugs. And songs like “The Knowing” demonstrate The Weeknd’s vulnerability at this stage of his career, focusing on his lover’s infidelity and exposing the trouble it brings to their love life, with lyrics like “now these tongues don’t twist like they did before/ it’s hard to keep me up / and you are dry”. Similarly, in “Twenty Eight” (albeit, a post-release addition to the House of Balloons mixtape), The Weeknd opens his lyrics up as a metaphor for his rise to fame, creating an analogy about the sharing of his music and the growth of his fanbase with word spreading about his skills as a lover,  with the lines “Hey there lonely girl/did you have to tell your friends about the way I had you screaming my name… girl you could have been the one/gotta change my number twice a month/When you could have simply kept it on the down low”. In summary, Mixtape Weeknd was innovative, honest, emotional, and took chances, which is why I admired his music so much at that time.

Now I want to be clear: while I appreciate the level of openness and accessibility The Weeknd has while in Mixtape Mode, it is clear that he draws on his drug abuse and depression to inspire this music, and his mental health and well-being should come above all else. The Weeknd has stated himself, in an interview with The Guardian in 2016, that “drugs were a crutch for me” in making his early music and admitted that “Even on this new album. You have writer’s block. And sometimes you’re like, I can’t do this sober.” One can only hope that eventually Abel will feel comfortable accessing that side of his art without the abusing drugs and that he can find healthy ways of dealing with his depression while still being able to use that vulnerability in his music. As he said to The Guardian, “’Right now, I feel in control… Where it takes me after, I don’t know.’”

Ultimately, after achieving popularity and mass radio play from his feature on Take Care, Abel’s mixtapes were combined, remastered, and re-released through Republic Records as The Weeknd’s first major label album, entitled The Trilogy. The Weeknd’s turn to Republic is where I felt his artistry took a hit, likely due to label pressure to succeed with pop radio and R&B. Kiss Land, his second studio album and first created as a label artist in 2013, was largely underwhelming both commercially and critically. The decline in artistic integrity is evidenced on “Live For”, a clear label-fueled attempt to capitalize on The Weeknd’s popular connection with Drake which falls on its face with what feels like minimum effort. The single releases for his third album effort, Beauty Behind The Madness, gave me hope that The Weeknd had rediscovered his form as the dark R&B artist with a hip-hop, particularly with the first single: “The Hills”. “The Hills” featured The Weeknd revisiting that classic deep bass that his mixtapes highlighted while crooning about his loveless affair and his reliance on drugs to feel alive. “The Hills” might have been my most-played song of the summer of 2015. I’m sure I wore out my roommates with its constant rotation, but I was SO excited to hear something that resembled the music I cherished so deeply just four years prior. The second single, “I Can’t Feel My Face”, took the world by storm and threw The Weeknd into the pop culture scene, despite its focus on drug addiction and the wild ride of the high. The Weeknd continued to rake in comparisons to Michael Jackson, which began with his mixtape Echoes of Silence where he covered Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” with “D.D.”. Yet, when the album finally dropped, Beauty Behind The Madness ultimately failed to meet my high hopes, deferring to pop features like his theme for Fifty Shades of Grey “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)” and an Ed Sheeran appearance (don’t even get me started). While achieving commercial success, The Weeknd was still lacking the honesty and raw availability that his mixtapes had granted music listeners.

One year later, The Weeknd reached critical success once again with his release of Starboy, an ode to David Bowie and a significant departure from Abel’s typical sounds. Now, don’t get me wrong: I really appreciated the steps The Weeknd took with Starboy and its uniqueness to not only his discography, but to pop music in 2016. In fact, Starboy was my fourth favorite project of 2016 (after Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, in case you’re curious). Yet, still The Weeknd was not able to reclaim what he once had in his music – a deep and endless darkness both lyrically and musically. Sure, some tracks stood out as close simulations to those qualities; “Party Monster” and “All I Know” both stretched for that place while simultaneously trying to stick with the Daft Punk-influenced themes in the album. And I do really love and admire when a musician finds new sounds and grows as an artist, especially when that growth does come in the same vein as the matchless Daft Punk. But I still feel that the special heart and honesty that Mixtape Weeknd brings to his music was missing on Starboy, opting instead for more commercial appeal.

Fast-forward to The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy, EP, a surprise release this past month. This extended playlist really marks The Weeknd’s first successful attempt to tap into that honesty, artistry, and dark melody that his mixtapes captured. In the trend of pop artists (see: Adele, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles…) capitalizing on their heartbreak, The Weeknd dives back into that very depressed and drug-repressed place following the end of his relationship with Selena Gomez on My Dear Melancholy. The Weeknd rediscovers the sounds he thrived in while he was coming up, while still adding shades of new sounds and accessible melodies for the followers he attained through his more pop-focused releases. “Try Me” demonstrates such a mix, highlighting some of the more pop elements from Starboy and production from Mike WiLL Made-It while still sitting in a very dramatic realm thematically, as does the Skrillex-produced “Wasted Times”. But the supremely underrated “Privilege” is the best example of Mixtape Weeknd’s return in my mind, as he digs deep into his emotions while preparing to immediately wash them away with the drugs he has returned to. While this song (and EP as a whole) showcases a vulnerable Abel resurfacing, it also brings back the brooding sensuality that decorated The Weeknd’s mixtape era, bringing him back full-circle to where he started.

While some may prefer the poppy accessibility of Starboy and Beauty Behind The Madness, I truly believe that Mixtape Weeknd brings more to the table as an artist; more depth, more darkness, and more experimentation. The Weeknd should be celebrated as a musician who had a huge influence on modern music, providing inspiration to Drake and other artists to explore a more vulnerable and emotional place within pop, hip-hop and R&B. The Weeknd’s reversion to Mixtape Mode is a victory lap for an artist who lost what made him unique in order to achieve critical acclaim, and whom can now proudly stand upon his original brand to reach success comfortably. If you haven’t checked out My Dear Melancholy, yet, I highly encourage you to do so with an appreciation for how far The Weeknd has had to come to be able to get back to his start.

— CD



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