The trope of artists growing into a self-destructive celebrity lifestyle is sadly far too common — artists often succumb to drug use and recklessness to cope with increased stress and maintain the highs of stardom. However, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s, known as The Weeknd, rise to fame flips this script. He appears to be more balanced and healthy than ever, recently funneling $7 million of his own money for his spectacular 2021 Super Bowl performance and helping the University of Toronto start up an Ethiopian studies program.
Yet, The Weeknd’s start as an artist was far from picturesque, living in the streets of Toronto before moving into the now-infamous “House of Balloons.” Here, The Weeknd lived the dark and hedonistic lifestyle that inspired his first mixtape, “House of Balloons,” released on Mar. 21, 2011. The project was released for free download online and took the internet by storm. In the 10 years since, the project has become a landmark in 2010s R&B — a dynamic showcase of The Weeknd’s insecurities about love and coping dive into the maximums of hedonism.
The project opens with the slow-mo plunge “High for This,” ushered by a few synth notes too weak to sustain themselves before Tesfaye’s angelic vocals sing out lustful instructions to his partner. It’s clear that Tesfaye finds solace in control over his relationships, but the crackling bass that tries creeping out of the instrumental makes it clear that Tesfaye lacks control over his own life.
In stark contrast to the showmanship of “High for This,” the following track, “What You Need,” serves as a break in the excitement. It is sonically unique to the album with its lo-fi aesthetics. However, the track is filled with context to The Weeknd’ s obsessions — previous feelings of being romantically ditched serve as fuel for his desires.
The ambiance of “What You Need” doesn’t last long, as listeners are plunged into the two-part experimental R&B cut “House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls.” The first half depicts a drug-fueled party, as industrial-sounding whirs give listeners the sensation of a head-high. Yet, glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity slip out of Tesfaye’s faked confidence — he tries to convince himself the night will actually bring him happiness (“Oh this is fun, fun, fun”) and simultaneously blames others for his self-destructive behavior (“So don’t blame it on me, girl, ‘cause you wanted to have fun”).
However, Tesfaye reaches a fully intoxicated state by the second half of the track, as his sharp vocals transition into raspy mumbling and he idolizes a pricey Boeing engine table around which the communal drug binge takes place.
“The Morning” follows as a sobering fourth track on the album — Tesfaye begins seeing the humanity and desires of the girls he was talking to. They too yearn for money, a quick high and a sense of acceptance, as opposed to actually being in love with him. Tesfaye’s angelic vocals combine with glossy synths and wailing guitars to make the song a truly beautiful moment.
However, this peacefulness doesn’t last long — Tesfaye no longer cares for true romance on “Wicked Games,” but would rather have any sense of someone loving him. Tesfaye sings, “I need confidence in myself,” and asks his interest to “Tell me you love me … Even though you don’t love me.” At the very least, the two share some element of symbiosis (“Bring your love, baby I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs, baby I can bring my pain”). This track also showcases some of Tesfaye’s most potent vocals.
The following two-part track “The Party & The After Party” is the most traditional R&B track on the project. With a slow and flowing beat, The Weeknd croons to a romantic interest, desperately promising to take it slow with her. The track also prominently features a sample from Beach House’s “Master of None,” before transitioning into the second half of the song, again focusing on his indulgent drug use and hedonistic romances.
“Coming Down” features one of the stranger beats on the album, with an uncomfortable looping guitar flourish that adds to the creeping atmosphere of the song. The Weeknd shares his addictions and adultery with his partner, but no longer seems apologetic. He willfully acknowledges that his love for them is fickle, as he admits, “I always want you when I’m coming down.”
The far more upbeat “Loft Music” follows the crushing low of “Coming Down.” The loft that the title refers to is the titular House of Balloons where Tesfaye spent most of his early career. Tesfaye continues describing the dark lifestyle of his friends in the house, before it transitions into a somber ambiance that fades into the cinematic closing track, “The Knowing.” The song is lyrically simple but emotionally complex, with The Weeknd telling his partner that he knows about her infidelity, but his emotional detachment protects him from any pain — a sentiment that is belied by the sadness in his layered vocals.
The track “Twenty Eight” was not part of the original mixtape, but was added as part of the “Trilogy” reissue. A piano loop preludes a stunning falsetto vocal climax, after which Tesfaye laments a loss of privacy, as he has let millions of people into his life with the success of his mixtapes.
“House of Balloons” was the launching point for one of the most successful pop and R&B artists of this decade, bringing The Weeknd attention from other mainstream artists such as Drake. While The Weeknd’s sound has evolved with each of his albums, each thematic focus can be traced back to this first mixtape — a perfect display of lust and insecurity in modern R&B. The Weeknd and 2010s R&B were born in the “House of Balloons.”