The Weeknd has been on a historic run for a decade now, and his groundbreaking 2011 mixtape is its origin.
In 2021, The Weeknd is inescapable. He’s one of the world’s biggest stars and a bona fide pop culture icon. Fresh off of an explosive Super Bowl halftime show just last month, his hit single “Blinding Lights” just became the only song to spend a whole year in Billboard’s top ten. You can’t go a day without hearing his music or seeing his face on a social feed or TV screen.
This is a stark contrast to where he was just a decade ago. In 2011, that inescapable name was just the moniker for Abel Tesfaye, a faceless, enigmatic artist from Toronto. Even as he made a home for himself on the front page of many popular music blogs, nobody knew his real name, nobody knew what he looked like, nobody knew who he was. All they knew was that he’d released House of Balloons, and that was enough.
House of Balloons, Tesfaye’s alternative R&B opus, was one of two projects to completely shift the tide of the genre at the time, the other being Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ULTRA. It was unlike anything out at the time, defied almost all of popular R&B’s conventions, and changed everything.
Whereas a lot of the popular R&B music of the time was pop-tinged and upbeat, or fit into the genre’s more traditional, romantic and sensual slow jams, Tesfaye was operating in a lane completely his own. House of Balloons is dark and perpetually nihilistic, fueled by drugs and drenched in sadism, and presented a reality that was as far from R&B’s “norm” as possible.
Sonically, this album’s soundscape paired perfectly with the dark themes and content that Tesfaye presented in his lyrics. On top of that, it was just as far from any pre-existing norms and conventions within the genre. It was moody, atmospheric and borderline psychedelic at its darkest, matching Tesfaye’s despair and drug-addled party-laden lifestyle, and at its brightest feeling like the high that he’s chasing.
From the outset, this album strikes this balance. Its intro, “High for This,” is dark and eerie, with Tesfaye welcoming the listener to his lifestyle as the song crescendos to its booming, bass-heavy chorus. It sets the tone perfectly for the drugged-out odyssey that the listener is about to embark on.
And it proved to be just that. Every song on this album fits that journey without ever feeling like you’re hearing the same song twice. From the airy and ethereal “The Morning” to the bleak and depressing “Wicked Games” to the wildly experimental two-part track “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” every song here serves a purpose.
It’s for these reasons that House of Balloons has gone on to be as influential as it has. Everybody from Bryson Tiller, Lil Uzi Vert, and even Drake have been deeply influenced by this project and the other two mixtapes in Tesfaye’s trilogy. It was a game-changer and has remained one of his best projects to this day, a flawless collection of tracks that, after ten years, not only holds up but is a clear-cut classic.