The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye is good at surprising his listeners. With the release of his first official mixtape earlier last year—the tour de force and unexpected hit that was House of Balloons—the unknown R&B singer was lauded by almost every independent blog on the Web and even received a sparkling endorsement from Toronto’s very own rap powerhouse Drake. The surprise only continued when Tesfaye released his second mixtape a few months later, titled Thursday—a record that seemed cryptic and unexpected given the initial commercial sound that Balloons had.
Given Tesfaye’s ability to shift so easily between a more commercial R&B sound and a darker, more reflective production style, no one could really guess what stunts the final mixtape of Tesfaye’s trilogy, Echoes of Silence, would pull. Surprisingly, Tesfaye doesn’t move too far away from the R&B niche he’s built for himself. With Echoes, Tesfaye takes the sexy confidence of House of Balloons and the best of the dark and slinky production of Thursday in order to craft an album that showcases and adds to his already complex sound palette.
The opening track, “D.D.” (a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”), at first feels like a risky choice given the song’s original commercial success during its release. Tesfaye doesn’t stray far from the King of Pop’s original recording, keeping a similar tempo for his rendition, while replacing the original stadium rock production with a minimal and gritty drum loop. The cover works to Tesfaye’s advantage; it drips with the same fiery vigour and passion as the original. The track borders on trying too hard to emulate the King of Pop, but Tesfaye’s cover still comes across as impressive, a compliment to his talent rather than a reminder of what it lacks in comparison. The cover comes across as appropriate and timely, welcomed yet unexpected, and it works to establish high expectations for the rest of Echoes.
Although nothing is as immediately accessible as “D.D.”, each song starts to shine with repeated rotation. With its breathy vocals and a looping French verse that hums underneath the soundscape, the second track, “Montreal”, stands out: it not only plays the blame game on Tesfaye’s female muse, it also references Carly Simon’s lyrics and Tesfaye’s own past work.
In fact, given the title of the mixtape, Echoes of Silence has no shame in repeating itself and being self-referential. From the girl who loses her opportunity to be his “lonely star” on the track “Montreal” to the standout song “XO/The Host”, which borrows lyrics directly from the song “Initiation” that follows it, Echoes is meant to be seen as the connecting piece, the glue of the trilogy. With its choice to combine the styles of its predecessors, it feels logical and conclusive—but not necessarily original, nor as engaging as House of Balloons or Thursday.
While the songs are strong individually and collectively, Echoes’s familiarity feels a bit daunting. It’s a work that ironically surprises the listener by being completely new material yet still feeling as if Tesfaye has already created it. Despite its strength and cohesiveness, Echoes of Silence hits too close on the collective memory of The Weeknd fans by being a bit too self-aware. It’s a product that leans too closely to The Weeknd’s R&B formula, a formula that no doubt works, but always feels a bit better when it’s being challenged, pushed, and slightly reinvented.