The Weeknd – House Of Balloons
Released March 21st, 2011 on XO Records
Before the show-stopping halftime show at the Super Bowl, before the #1 hits and the ubiquitous radio presence, there was an old brick house on Spencer Ave. in Parkdale, a neighbourhood in Toronto that has a checkered history. Once it was a wealthy area, full of large mansions and access to a stretch of prime beachfront on Lake Ontario. Then the city put up the Gardner Expressway, a rapid-access belt that neatly cut off Parkdale from its beach access. The wealthy left their houses and moved to more up-and-coming areas of the city. A few decades later the Ontario government lost its taste for dealing with mental illness and closed down most institutions, flooding lower-income working-class areas of the city with people struggling just to survive. By the 00s it was a target for the artists that presage a wave of gentrification in working-class neighbourhoods. I know because I was there, and so was Abel Tesfaye. He was south of King St and I was north of it (just north of Queen St, in fact, in an infamous pair of towers known as West Lodge) but either way the struggle was real. In a 2013 Reddit AMA Tesfaye revealed that the titular House of Balloons was on Spencer Ave., which was just across King from where we used to hang out. I don’t think I ever met him while I was there; a lot of people came through those parties and through those bedroom freestyle sessions but it’s a big neighbourhood. Still, I always wonder if I’ll be cutting through one of those old freestyle files and find a familiar voice lurching raggedly from my headphones.
House of Balloons was a hot commodity pretty much immediately, as far as I remember. It was just credited to “The Weeknd” at the time, which lent it an air of mystery that, like Sunny D, has the good stuff that kids go for. That mystery was deepened by the eerie, hazy production on the mixtape, which made these tales of debauchery and regret seem grim rather than glamourous. They’re songs driven by long nights of drugs and consensual sex that nonetheless seems like something you should regret in the hard morning after, even if you actually don’t. “Bring your love baby, I can bring my shame / Bring your drugs baby, I can bring my pain,” was less of a songwriting conceit and more of a way of life. Other mixtapes would follow, and then proper albums; Billboard charts and #1 collaborations. There still seems like there’s something special about House of Balloons, though; a vibe that feels like you’re diving off of a high diving board into the unknown, not knowing what may come of this music, if anything. The fact that “HOB/Glass Table Girls” can still elicit goosebumps a decade later, live at an over-the-top theatrical Super Bowl performance, is testament to the enduring strength of the songs on this mixtape. Another testament is that two of the ten songs here were included on his recent greatest hits package, despite the fact that so much more well-known material has been released in the ensuing decade (even though “High For This” isn’t on it, which seems like a criminal oversight). These days its most often found subsumed into Trilogy, which combines all of Tesfaye’s first three mixtapes, but it’s worth listening to on its own in full. Where we come from is just as important as where we’ve arrived.