Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
For some, The Weeknd made the playbook for a new-artist rollout in the 2010s. Striking and cohesive art direction, a handful of cool singles (ideally with a cosign or two from on high), and an explicit air of mystery around the party responsible.
It’s not just that there isn’t much biographical (or photographic) information available about the hot new thing, it’s that everyone knows the intel is scant. Artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR, H.E.R., and DVSN followed the path of performative anonymity Abel Tesfaye perfected. In five years, Tesfaye went from the interview-allergic cypher behind three self-released mixtapes to a global pop star, emailing with journalists and racking up Grammys and No. 1 singles.
In March 2011, the Weeknd released his first mixtape, House of Balloons, after the early singles “What You Need,” “Loft Music” and “The Morning” popped up on YouTube and blogs, including Drake’s OVO site. The title track immediately stood out, with its surprising sample of the forever cool British post-punk group Siouxsie and the Banshees and two-part structure, including a rapped portion that revealed Tesfaye had more than an androgynous tenor in his toolbox.
According to co-producer Doc McKinney, the beat for the first half dated back to 2008, and he originally had Santigold in mind. Then he played it for Tesfaye and “House of Balloons” emerged. “I did the switch-up and the beat for ‘Glass Table Girls’ on the fly because Abel wanted to rap at the end,” McKinney recalls over email. Still, McKinney is a bit wistful about the process: “I wish they would’ve been two songs,” he writes.
As a seven-minute unit, the song is intoxicating and menacing, the sound of a party degrading in real time. Had the two parts been separated, the journey that exemplifies the early iteration of the Weeknd, from “this is kinda creepy but mostly chill” to “wow, this gathering of merrymakers is actually a degenerate nightmare,” wouldn’t have been crystalized so thoroughly. “This is a happy house,” Tesfaye sings during part one, “We’re happy here, in a happy house. This is fun.” Scraped out and pinched, he sounds utterly unconvincing.
The roller-coaster wail of the Siouxsie sample echoes until the glass tables come out; everyone does lines in order to keep drinking, eventually watching the sunrise through dirty condominium windows with raw, bloodshot eyes. The bright keys evacuate the song for part two, which is brute percussion and low-end churn. Tesfaye raps in his speaking voice about drugs and sleeping with someone’s girlfriend. “Is that your girl? What’s her f–king story?” Famous last words if you’re not the protagonist of a rap song.
After his acclaimed mixtape trilogy, Tesfaye did what hardly anyone anticipated: became a singing-and-dancing pop star, modeling himself after Michael Jackson. Though he covered “Dirty Diana” on Echoes of Silence, his final mixtape, that didn’t prove he was capable of cleaning up his act enough to, you know, win a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award — which he did, with 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, his breakout sophomore album. (His 2013 major-label debut Kiss Land was very much in the mold of the mixtapes, all porn stars and Blade Runner references, but lacking the core production team behind those tapes.)
Strangely, the edgy, bloggy thing you and your friends tweeted about became catnip for parents, thanks to the Max Martin-produced single “Can’t Feel My Face.” Sure, the song might have been about blow, but it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
At the close of the decade, “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” encapsulates what made the Weeknd so fresh on his mixtapes: left-of-center sample, weary lyrics refuting the possibility of pleasure and sweetness, and production that knocks. He’s made it darker (“Initiation”) and telegraphed his taste more explicitly (“Heaven or Las Vegas”) but nothing is as finely calibrated to both turn up a party and make your skin crawl as this. Hence why he still pulls it out at concerts, amidst the now requisite rug-cutting.