Canadian content in mainstream media is something of a debate these days. Should we regulate broadcast media/organizations so that we have enough Canadian content in our everyday lives? What even constitutes “Canadian content?”
In keeping with the theme of Canadian content, I found myself stumbling back across Trilogy, the Weeknd’s mixtape compilation album released in 2012. The tripartite compilation begins with House of Balloons, arguably one of the most influential mixtapes to grace the R&B scene. Today, on its tenth anniversary (and re-issue!), I revisit House of Balloons, address the Grammys, and start thinking about Canadian content.
Though House of Balloons remains as striking as it was 10 years ago, hearing the original recordings after ages of only listening to the remastered versions on Trilogy is like walking back into your childhood bedroom, where time seems to have come to a standstill, only to notice dust mites dancing in the air, illuminated by the fading sunlight.
The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, captures the carefully reckless nature of adolescence and young adulthood in 9 alluring tracks, each with its own personality and story. On the surface, the mixtape is about drugs, sex, and a nightlife fueled by intoxicants. It’s addictive, with cool, percussive hooks that thrum beneath Tesfaye’s smooth falsetto and captivating lower register. Take the titular track, “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls,” a seven-minute hallucinogenic in two parts, with a pulsing beat that could probably drown somebody, if given the chance. Beneath the mixtape’s posturing, however, is a desperate yearning for true happiness. It also poses a question: who is to blame in this overarching narrative? To immerse oneself in the mixtape is to be challenged by morality in self-purported depravity, and its depth is likely one of the many factors that makes it so timeless.
Sonically, House of Balloons is something of an enigma. It’s mysterious, enticing, and draws listeners in through dreamy, soaring soundscapes, only to leave them scathed and bruising after each illusory outro. From the smoky seduction of “High For This” to the unexpectedly contemplative “The Knowing,” it’s far from “vapid” or “indulgent.”
With House of Balloons, Tesfaye defined a new era of R&B, and his continued efforts have made him one of the most recognizable artists of the 21st century. I’m not alone in thinking this:
For the Twitter-less: this link leads to a collection of posts online celebrating Canada by celebrating the Weeknd’s Superbowl show. I’ve used this particular Twitter thread as an example of the Canadian imagined community in previous scribbles of mine, but it’s never been as particularly relevant as it is now. This show was spectacular (barring a faked violin performance). It sparked a viral meme that had people in hysterics. Despite this, the Weeknd was shut out at the Grammys a scant month later, after the undeniably, immensely successful release of his latest album, After Hours. On that note: notice how the Grammys were mostly dominated by white, American artists? They didn’t have a problem awarding Tesfaye before, so what happened?
The Weeknd isn’t beyond criticism, but there’s no denying his artistry or his commitment to his craft. From the symbolism diffused throughout his writing and videos to the narratives he carefully weaves, the Weeknd is art personified. His voice isn’t just pleasing to the ear; it’s become one of the voices of Canada itself.
That said, we can’t remove racism from the conversation, nor can we ignore the corruption in the industry, as these are undoubtedly large factors at play in the Academy’s decisions.
Winning—or in this case, being nominated in the first place for—a Grammy would have been another success shared by Canadians. It would have been a chance to publicly show support for Canadian content and celebrate national and racial diversity in the contemporary music scene. Instead, we’re left with the age-old question: “why does/should Canadian content even matter?”
I can’t answer that in any definitive capacity, but I can look back at House of Balloons and stare at the resounding effects the mixtape had on music today.
From House of Balloons to After Hours, Tesfaye has put in the work. Whichever way you slice it—by merit of artistry alone, or in an effort to be more diverse—the Weeknd deserved better.
Stream House of Balloons here: https://theweeknd.lnk.to/HouseofBalloons10