In 2012, two up-and-coming R&B artists released breakthrough smashes. The Weeknd and Frank Ocean dropped “The Trilogy” and “Channel Orange,” respectively. Frank Ocean (the sweetheart) sang about unrequited love. The Weeknd (the bad boy) sang about cocaine-fueled one night stands. Their destinies appeared obvious. Frank Ocean recorded hooks for Kanye West, JAY-Z and Beyonce, so clearly he would go pop. The Weeknd would be the one to release more experimental music.
But that’s not the way it happened. Frank Ocean disappeared for four years then released the sublime “Blonde.” The Weeknd began churning out top-40 hits like his life depended on it. “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy” were chock full of dancey production and cheap, manipulative and undeniably colossal choruses which rammed their way into listeners brains and never left.
On Friday, the Weeknd, a.k.a Abel Tesfaye, released the EP “My Dear Melancholy,” out of the blue, just weeks before his headlining spot at Coachella. After the 20-song undercooked and overwrought “Starboy,” a precise six-song project is refreshing.
“My Dear Melancholy,” returns to his earlier sound of “The Trilogy.” The music is darker and more personal. Instead of the singalongs from the last two albums, “My Dear Melancholy,” offers obscure instrumentals and subtler, albeit haunting melodies. The songs aren’t immediately catchy, but they insidiously creep into your DNA.
On the opening track “Call Out My Name,” Tesfaye sings “I said I didn’t feel nothing baby, but I lied.” On “Starboy,” the Weeknd’s villain complex grew so outrageous, he prevented the listener from empathizing with him. He only sang about objectifying women and cars. Now he’s back to telling tales of tortured love.
French techno artist and “Yeezus” producer Gesaffelstein features on “I Was Never There” and “Hurt You.” The project credits electronic recording artist Nicolas Jaar and Daft Punk’s Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo. His influences sound more eclectic than ever before. He seems to be drawing from the sultry dreaminess of Beach House, the moody crooning of Lana Del Rey and the vaporwave restlessness of Oneohtrix Point Never. Abel has either sampled or collaborated with all these artists. Perhaps Abel finally got over himself and was able to appreciate those around him.
The title “My Dear Melancholy,” evokes urgent imagery. For a generation so massively enamored by its own sadness, it fits perfectly. Here’s a history for you readers: in the age before modern medicine, doctors dubbed “melancholic” one of the four humors along with “sanguine,” “choleric” and “phlegmatic.” These constituted different liquids within your body. Melancholia was said to be made up of black sludge. Whichever liquid you had the most of in your body determined what type of people you were. Hippocrates described melancholia as “fears and despondencies if they last a long time” in Aphorisms. If melancholia would not be cured in a timely fashion, patients were believed to be possessed by demons. The Weeknd knows his listeners are filled to the brim with black sludge, descending into a hellish MDMA crash, getting ghosted by ex-booty calls and tweeting about their anxiety. Maybe we’re all just possessed.
Lyrically, the EP does nothing special. It’s mostly typical Weeknd fodder: a vague, emotionally abusive sexual relationship. A few eye-roll inducing lines include “But if you call me up/I’m fucking you on sight” from “Hurt You” and “I know right now we ain’t talkin/But I hope you know this dick is always an option” from “Wasted Times.”
Many on the internet speculate that this is only the first installment of a larger project. What a time to be alive when artists can release music with no promotion back-to-back. It makes sense, as not many titles of completed works end in a comma. I believe it stands on its own as a solid piece of art, but it would also be cool if more came out. For the first time in a while, I look forward to new music from the Weeknd, which says a lot.
Joey Thyne can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @joey_thyne.