'House of Balloons' Turns 10: How the Weeknd Beat the Odds and Turned R&B on Its Head
After the gloss of '00s pop-soul, the debut mixtape from Toronto crooner gave the genre a sense of danger
Published Mar 18, 2021In the late '00s, R&B had a certain gloss. Neo-soul's grip on the soundscape had loosened, trading soulful earthiness for upbeat, synth-infused music that borrowed heavily from hip-hop's "snap" era. Beyoncé was waving her hands to "Single Ladies," and Usher was making "Love in this Club". The sound was lustrous, but a little contrived. Even the break-up anthems, like Rihanna's "Take a Bow" or LeToya Luckett's "Regret," had a layer of polished artifice with their twinkling pianos and punchy drums. In 2011, a mysterious crooner from Scarborough would upend it all.
Right down to the minimal promotion, the Weeknd's House of Balloons — which turns 10 on Sunday (March 21) alongside a reissue featuring its "original mixes and samples"— was the antithesis to everything R&B had become by the time the mixtape dropped. The crooner's identity was shrouded in mystery; we knew that his real name was Abel Tesfaye, but not much else. The production was dark, brooding and hypnotic (like the murky, distorted swell of "High for This"). The lyrics painted startling imagery: it was unbridled debauchery, written for the Wild West of the internet rather than radio's sanitized airwaves (think of the raving high and catatonic comedown on "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls"). The Weeknd didn't strive for vocal perfection, instead embracing his tortured, unvarnished falsetto. While the popular sound at the time leaned toward sparkle, nothing glistened on House of Balloons. It was murky, glamorous gloom coated in a thin dusting of cocaine.
House of Balloons was a risky project, and, according to the industry formula, it should not have succeeded. But the Weeknd's quiet arrival to the music scene sent a spark through the underground that would eventually rewrite the rules in popular music.
The underground — the clandestine, pre-mainstream, black market of the music scene — is home to rebels, fans who like to dig for treasure and who turn their nose up at anything popular. Before House of Balloons, there was no room for R&B in that environment. Hip-hop thrived in the underground because it was built there —it was the place that supported the genre long before major record labels began to see its value. But R&B was too prim, polished and too well-liked for underground tastemakers to embrace — that is, until Balloons injected the traditional R&B sound with an acceptable grittiness.
The Weeknd's voice was sweet, but his lyrics were gory and the imagery was explicit ("The only girls that we fuck with seem to have 20 different pills in 'em," he croons on "Loft Music"). The beats were melancholic and subdued; "Coming Down" is not the kind of song to throw on for a night of dancing.
Even the ballads were slightly too creepy to be heartwarming. The extended drug metaphor of "What You Need" is full of passion, sex and danger — but there definitely isn't any romance.
Lyrically and sonically, the mixtape made beauty out of a certain ugliness. It was far too edgy for the average R&B fan to wrap their head around. But obscurity is alluring to an underground contrarian, so turning R&B from glossy and respectable to a dark, guilty pleasure was a smart move on the Weeknd's part.
This pivot likely attracted a whole new legion of fans who may not have otherwise engaged with the genre. Building a new community of R&B listeners helped to fuel the Weeknd's white-hot ascent — and open the door for other artists looking to break some rules.
Clout didn't hurt his case either. Long before it became a buzzword, the Weeknd figured out how to use clout as a promotional tactic that defied the drawn-out, in-your-face approach of major record labels. His marketing plan was simple and genius: say nothing and let the people be your promo. He understood that less was more, and that intrigue would inspire the tastemakers to advertise on his behalf. By refusing to show his face, he created an air of exclusivity that only boosted his appeal. He concealed his identity, but inherently gave his supporters an identity to assume: to be a Weeknd fan was to have a membership in a VIP league where the person with the most intel could become king. "Have you heard about the Weeknd?" "Is it a group or just one person?" "Have you seen his face?" "Oh, you've never heard of him? You can't sit with us." The Weeknd got his listeners hooked not just on his sound, but also on the bragging rights that came with knowing him.
We know that the Weeknd's winning formula of darkness and exclusivity helped catapult him to superstardom. His foresight, and his willingness to bet on his own sound, has led to Grammys, film roles, an Academy Award nomination and even a Super Bowl halftime show.
But more important than his own accolades, the ripple effect that House of Balloons had on R&B cannot be understated. The change was so pervasive that it birthed a new subgenre — alternative R&B — where more rebels and rule-breakers could usher in a new guard. The mixtape's influence endures in artists like Bryson Tiller and 6LACK. The Weeknd's early days of mystery and elusiveness were replicated by H.E.R. and SAULT. The legion of R&B fans, who would have otherwise never embraced the genre, continues to grow.
Nothing about House of Balloons was supposed to succeed, but therein lies its magic. An album that bold could only either fail spectacularly — or change everything.