In my opinion, The Weeknd is the most underrated artist out right now in the genres of pop/R&B/hip hop (among both independent and major label artists). His first release, House of Balloons (stream, download), was fantastic–one of my favorite releases of last year. I never got into his second release, Thursday (stream, download). But now I’m starting to think I should go back and listen to it. Because as I get acquainted with Echoes of Silence (stream, download), his most recent album, it feels like an improvement in every way on his earlier work.
The Weeknd is an esoteric artist–simply put, there’s quite a bit to “get” about him. After Thursday had a lukewarm reception from many fans, some wondered if he was losing his touch, as many indie artists seem to do after an initial success. But Echoes of Silence is just better than House of Balloons by pretty much any objective measure. Abel Tesfaye (the singer; the artist name The Weeknd refers specifically to him, and not to his group of producers, which most consistently includes Illangelo and has also featured Doc McKinney extensively) has always had a strong voice (listen to the first track from his first release). But his vocal performance on this album is just unbelievable. He’s gotten way better.
Here, in his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” his performance is great in its own right. But it’s made better by the fact that his MJ impression is pretty spot-on, and his vocal performance actually does justice to quite possibly the best pop singer of all time. Just inviting a favorable comparison to Michael Jackson as a singer is enough to make Tesfaye an extremely promising young artist–to say nothing of the other aspects of his music.
Besides his vocal performances improving, the production (which was also great from his first album) has improved substantially as well. Tesfaye relied almost exclusively on Illangelo on Echoes of Silence. The production sound has become more specific and developed as The Weeknd has abandoned superfluous styles he experimented with earlier and painted from a smaller palette. It works.
For this analysis I’m going to focus on the production rather than the vocal performance or lyrics. (Although both of the latter are very noteworthy–in fact, his lyrics are probably the hook that move The Weeknd’s music from merely very well-executed to very interesting. They range from fairly conventional to completely insane. But I’ll have to talk about them later.)
There are many standout tracks on Echoes of Silence, but I (somewhat arbitrarily) decided I wanted to focus on the second track, “Montreal,” for now. I’ve always loved second tracks on albums. Like second verses in songs, they’re very important, and I think not enough artists put enough thought into them. I got a taste for second tracks because one of my first favorite artists in middle school was the Red Hot Chili Peppers–and man do they have great second tracks. (Most notably, “Parallel Universe” off Californication and “Universally Speaking” off By the Way.)
The first track is the exposition–it sets the tone for the album and hints at some of the themes. The second track is the first time you explore one of those themes in depth. It can’t be as high energy as the first track, because it has to contrast with it. But it has to drive enough to maintain the interest of the listener. It’s a delicate balance.
The snare is amazing. Beautiful envelope on the gated reverb, in my opinion. The reverb is so big and powerful, yet it just wisps away like cotton candy. The snare makes this instrumental track.
The way the snare and its reverb on the last 16th note of the 4th beat of every bar are cut off so abruptly by the kick is awesome.
All the other drums are a little small to make room for the snare. The kick pattern is a fairly conventional hip hop beat, but you would never guess it because the drum performance is live (or very convincingly faked) and the drums don’t have a conventional hip hop aesthetic at all. The kick is a short, tight, but present blip–round and full in the upper lows, staying out of the way of the bass below 120 Hz or so, and with a nice beater click in the mids.
The vibe is kind of 80s arena rock (again, because of the gated reverb snare), but in that super-clean modern style that I love.
There’s the most subtle 8th note pulse from a shaker in the center-left (panned in the same part of the stereo field as the hi hat that hits on the upbeat of 1 and the downbeat of 3. In fact, the sound has a very hi hat-quality to it. It might be a hi hat with a smoothed out articulation, like the crash cymbal in the hook–see below.). But the stronger pulse is the continuous 8th note activity in the drum kit, as follows:
- Downbeat of 1: kick
- Upbeat of 1: hi hat
- Downbeat of 2: snare
- Upbeat of 2: kick
- Downbeat of 3: hi hat
- Upbeat of 3: kick
- Downbeat of 4: snare
- Upbeat of 4: kick in odd-numbered measures, low tom in even-numbered measures
No overlap and no conflict, but also no empty space and a constant pulse. Omitting the hi hat except as necessary to maintain the pulse is an unusual choice for R&B/hip hop. But the sparseness serves the track well.
I love the tactic of using elements in different ranges of the frequency spectrum throughout a continuous loop, but never at the same time. Another notable example of this technique from another notable Canadian producer is from the verse section of “November 18th” by Drake (produced by 40). Although he employs it in the instruments, not in the drums.
(The verse starts around 0:26. The bass alternates with the Rhodes piano–never overlapping, but there’s never really empty space either. You can hear it best at the beginning of the verse when there aren’t drums.)
The cold, industrial digital reverb that’s used on not only the snare but also the whole kit is great for the mood of the track (and the style of The Weeknd).
In the hook, a crash cymbal-like sound with a completely dulled articulation comes in the right, on beats 2 and 4. It sounds a little like a reversed crash melded into a regular crash, except without the transients. And there’s this high frequency information in the upper mids–a sheen in the ballpark of 5 – 10 kHz (my ears aren’t too good for specific frequencies yet, but it’s around there)–that sounds a bit like it might be a synth layered in.
(Check back later–I’ll put up the second half of my analysis, where I discuss the instruments and the vocal production.)