|2011||House of Balloons||The Weeknd||★★★★½||87||Hip-Hop||R&B||Alternative R&B|
I really love how House of Balloons flows from beginning to end, that the subjects and themes return from song to song, and put the main character through a wringer of emotions and situations delivered with R&B vocals over guitar samples, dream pop synths and slow drums, as opposed to more traditional hip-hop elements.
“High For This” is a great opener that sets the dark tone and destructive themes for the entire album. “What You Need” introduces a cool, laid back drug vibe with eerie production, before the album’s title track shows you the more destructive, loud and aggressive side of drugs. Then “The Morning” picks up the very next, with memories both fresh and hazy and some soothing sounds before we talk about strippers, and then even more strippers on “Wicked Games,” which lyrically shows a lot of vulnerability. We’re back to partying with an awesome Beach House sample on “The Party & After Party,” where “Coming Down” again serves as that post-party come down. “Loft Music” flips another Beach House sample well, and the free flowing, unstructured lyrics without a chorus are different from the songs that focus more on singing. It transitions really well into that Cherry-Coloured Funk sample on “The Knowing,” which again is a little different thematically and a bit of a “take a look in the mirror” approach, but without real remorse or regrets.
While one could dismiss the lyrics as repetitive and shallow — yes, every song is about doing cocaine and strippers, which can lead someone to think it’s just stereotypical hip-hop songwriting about partying and women — I think they’re a lot more complex at times and deliberate in building the album overall.
So many of the songs seem like either a drug song or a song about sex, but in reality most of the time they are written in a way that you can see them as either. The first time I heard “What You Need” I definitely thought it was a guy trying to convince a girl to cheat on their significant other with them, but now I only really hear it as a song about someone needing drugs and not being able to get over their addiction. Sex and drugs are similar addictions so it makes sense you can write about them interchangeably, but you usually don’t see it done in such a seamless way.
The exorbitant amount of drug use and destructive behavior mentioned here is so far above a typical “lets get drunk and party” pop record, to the point that it’s almost scary, and the tension in the music really plays that up. Not every party, every hit or every woman is a good time or something The Weeknd’s proud of. He’s clearly addicted, he’s clearly struggling to get through things and he admits it at times, while still continuing to go out every night. That honest look at life and vulnerability is something you don’t get very often in music like this.
I do think the negatives about the album are pretty obvious. Some of the outros for the songs are way too long and get tiring if you pay too much attention or aren’t in the mood. “Loft Music” is really cool, but that 3+ minute outro should really only be a minute or so long to serve as a bridge between that song and the next. “The Party” is good but, in a similar way, “After Party” overstays a bit, and you could say the same thing about “Glass Table Girls” (although I wouldn’t).
Some of the songs are a bit repetitive lyrically as well. Again, “Glass Table” and “After Party” have very repetitive elements in their outros, and some of the choruses throughout are really one phrase over and over. “Bring the 707 out” is said 12 times in “Glass Table Girls.” “I always want you when I’m coming down” is said 8 times in every chorus of its song, so is “ I know everything,” in the closer. “All that money” and “Girl, put in work,” are similar in “The Morning.” I like those songs, and I like those parts of those songs, but it’s a lot sometimes and does feel repetitive when you really pay attention to it instead of just vibing to the music.