Let's do this.
The Cover: Okay, already I am in love. Though the use of the Helvetica typeface (yes, font) may be a liiiittle bit hipster, it still looks good. The retro styling with name and tracks clearly named on the cover rubs me the right way, and the color palette swatch thingy pulls it all together to the image. And those pictures! It's as if this guy knows exactly what I like to see: Great photography with dramatic contrast of color that says a lot about superficiality and self-sacrifice in the name of image. Also: Drugs, baby. Why Thursday, though? Is it because Rebecca Black already took Friday? We shall see...
01. Lonely Star
Now, I'm not the most educated R&B listener, but this I like. Inventive! We start with chipmunk vocals--it's a testament to this guy that the pitched-up lines at the beginning don't sound comedic--and then are hit by a buzzing distorted guitar sound that repeats throughout the track. It's like Nine Inch Nails decided to make soul music. The Weeknd's crooning, high-pitched and slippery, woo the titular 'lonely star' female with come-ons that are clearly meant to be seen as shallow and already dysfunctional, from the "baby I could fuck you right" flirt in the first verse to the advice to choose the "wrong path" to him near the end. The choice of Thursday is also quickly illuminated. Apparently this album will be quasi-concept, and Thursday is the day that the protagonist and his girl have together...probably because she isn't important enough for his drug-addled weekend parties but isn't exactly a beginning-of-the-week toss-away, either. Dysfunction! Darkness! More please. 5 stars.
02. Life of the Party
Okay, I change my mind. This song is Nine Inch Nails-does-R&B. With a healthy dose of reggae. Really dark reggae. Yeah, this is basically goth industrial sexy reggae. About drugs. Musically and thematically it's a continuation of the first song, and now our two heroes are getting high (really high) and going to party downtown. The song starts with a "woooo!" that sounds like either a war cry, and the breaths before it sound like the singer is struggling to stay alive, high as a freaking kite. This continues through grinding choruses and an eerie added clanging at the end. The cynicism is deep here: It's obvious that both of our characters are aware of their deplorable state, and how it echoes the wreckage of their relationship. Not your average tale of heartbreak. 5 stars.
An echoey, foggy lament. Sadness abounds while radar bleeps keep time. It's like rowing through a digital swamp. The Thursday motif is here again with not much else lyrically except for a plea not to call because, hey, it's not Thursday yet. It's a simple but beautifully sad line, illustrating a relationship defined by something strict and destructive for both parties. I can't help but feel terrible for this fictional (probably drugged up) paramour, rejected (probably repeatedly) by the voice of the (almost certainly drugged up) narrator. This would perfectly soundtrack parts of Requiem for a Dream. DARK. 4 stars.
04. The Zone (feat. Drake)
A slow, sensual back-and-forth (see what I did there?) burner reeks of the numbness of yet more drugs. It's like I'm in the middle of watching a slow-motion trainwreck: Our narrator self-medicates so heavily that he cannot see or feel (literally and metaphorically), but is still with his Thursday girl. At this point it's clear that each character of this narrative uses the other as yet another numbing drug, a way to get into the escapist zone of the this track's title. By the time Drake starts rapping all raspy-like about drugging and banging strippers, it's seems completely natural, like we've been waiting to pop our heads above the haze to see it the whole time. 5 stars.
05. The Birds Part 1
I really like the idea of tracks with "parts," like related movements in a symphony. It's a chance for an artist to construct elaborate concepts across multiple song sounds, and I'm into deep narrative so it fits. I therefore instantly want the next two tracks to work. The drumline march beat that starts this track starts off well, and is backed by creeping synth lines while The Weeknd's voice warns that he is "just a bird," ready to fly away at any time. It works well with the album so far, and I am happy to see that this is the rare concept album that is making it happen since I like concept albums, too, even though they often sound so forced. 4 stars.
06. The Birds Part 2
Well, this one's not as good as part one musically (though it has its orchestrated James-Bond-y background and noir guitar moments) and gets a little languid, but it's a fitting sequel. We find that the poor girl ended up falling for our narrator despite his warnings, and the song is a snapshot or her begging for him to stay while he, presumably, is leaving. Saddest line? "I thought I told you/I'm not him." Ouch. And there are awesome creepy bird noises at the end. 4 stars.
This is the first track that takes me away from the narrative and starts to sound generic. More of THE DRUGS, more meaningless relationships. Okay. Also, the music sounds way too much like what I hate hearing on top 40 radio. I was set to give this one star until the track breaks down, goes into emotive crooning, and then turns into a heavy dub slow-beat. The beat alone saves it! 2 stars.
08. Rolling Stone
Apparently "rolling stone" is a drug reference for being on weed and ecstasy at the same time. I learn all kinds of important things from doing music research! More lyrics like that in Gone. We get it by now, I think - you're super high. The only part I really like is this: "Yea I know I got my issues/Why you think I fuckin' flow?/And I'mma keep on smoking 'til I can't hit another note." A haunting and pathetic line all at once. Like the rest of the album, it provides a picture of in process self-destruction through the escapism of drugs and relationships. I like that finger-picked guitar and the building near the end, but it doesn't go anywhere for me. 2 stars.
09. Heaven or Las Vegas
This track isn't even a reggae hybrid anymore; it's a nu-reggae track, and that's a good thing. It perfectly reflects the muggy/druggy atmosphere of the album, and gets progressively foggier and spacey <like a drug trip> as it goes. It's to The Weeknd's credit that I almost believe that he really does think "I am heaven/I am God" and that the drugged lifestyle is his perfection, but the first verse acknowledges he is "paying for all [his] father's sins." Las Vegas is basically Hell, and we can take the title to mean that and, conversely, that it is another name for the protagonist's heaven. It's a great way to end this album's trip (lololol) - on the escapist optimism of the narrator. We can see the hell of his life wafting around him, but he numbs himself into the fantasy that he's exactly where he wants to be. 4 stars.
The Final Word: Get this album, and then support this guy...how? Go see him live. He just booked his first American tour. Tell your friends about him. Buy the next album (I'm assuming it will not continue to be free). Yes, once again The Weeknd has created an innovative and incredibly dark R&B album about two lovers trapped in the pursuit of escape and numbness. Can we still even call it R&B? Obviously influenced by rhythm&blues and soul, it is probably just as equally indebted to the sounds of reggae and indie rock, and this completely works in its favor without ever sounding fake or contrived. Bravo, Mr. Weeknd. Also, kudos for a 9-track album. We no longer use CDs, and artists should no longer feel chained to a 60-80 minute album runtime. This is one of the advantages of the 'digital revolution' (ugh, did I actually just write that?): Less limited creativity. Musicians like The Weeknd are at the forefront, crossing genres and blowing minds. Despite a slightly weaker and redundant back end, Thursday is now my favorite R&B album of all time.Standout Tracks: Lonely Star, Life of the Party.