If you had told me at the end of 2010 that 2011 would be an amazing year for R&B mixtapes, I would've responded, "Maybe, but I don't listen to R&B, so that doesn't really affect me one way or the other". Well, it turns out that I would've been wrong, had that prediction been posited to me to begin with, because I do listen to R&B now and it's largely because "free" and "excellent" are two amazing incentives when it comes to giving a genre a shot.
Frank Ocean's Nostalgia/Ultra came first, so it gets the first review. Best known as the only member of OFWGKTA to not be completely hyped on rape, Ocean's disinterest in sexual assault automatically positions him as the best member of the group to make a pleasant, catchy and sweet if occasionally dark collection of infectious pop tunes. Luckily, there are higher bars than "not a rapist" to be considered when crafting good R&B, and Ocean manages to hit mostly all of them.
There's a pervasive wit to Frank Ocean's debut that helps transition some of the lewder moments in the album into coming off less crass and pompous and more like a natural extension of Ocean's sardonic personality(a verse about how filming a porno makes him feel like Stanley Kubrick, capped with the line "This is some visionary shit"). Indeed, while the production can sometimes seem like it's not filling out the song as well as it could be, the mellow sparsity gives Ocean's songwriting a chance to shine as he shifts from juvenile comedy to buttery seduction and even occasionally unmistakable sorrow with the ease of an artist twice his age. Whether you're chuckling at "Rolling around like I'm driving to a funa, roll" or becoming genuinely uncomfortable at "Can't let these boys see me crying/'Cause they ain't had no fathers neither, and they ain't crying", most every song has a line that's going to stick in your head. Ocean is a true lyrical craftsman, painting the Casanova lifestyle as being as glamorous as it is soul-crushing while never painting himself as a rake or a crybaby.
The Weeknd's House of Balloons, then, exists on the absolute opposite of the spectrum. Lyrics aren't the important thing here-production is, and oh my dear God is this album's production a thing of beauty. As opposed to Ocean's warmth and pervasive humanity, The Weeknd is a sex machine from beyond the stars, seducing not with sweet nothings but cosmic rituals that draw you in and flatten you with their otherworldly strength. The opening track's assurance that "You'll wanna be high for this" turns out to be one of the greatest instances of truth in advertising in the entire year of 2011.
If Krautrock were ever to be played in a club, it would probably sound something like House of Balloons. Project mastermind Abel Tesfaye's throbbing, eerie synthesizer production makes one consider Tangerine Dream as produced by Timbaland(or, if you like, Massive Attack producing Chris Brown) and the spacey autotune settings only compound the sense that The Weeknd's love is a cold, subtle, violent thing. Dreamy space rock and dream pop aesthetics combine snarling bass and club-ready beats to create an experience entirely removed from all of its influences, and the raw libido of Tesfaye's lyrics combined with the sterilized intensity of his production create an alienating experience for the listener, bringing you into a world where sex seems as passionate as it does robotic. Frankly put, from a purely sonic standpoint, I've never heard anything like it, not to this degree.
It's fitting, then, that with Nostalgia/Ultra's focus on songwriting and House of Balloons' focus on production, that they would both have the flaws you would expect of them: Uninteresting beats in the former and stupid lyrics in the latter. Neither crop up terribly often, but they're both persistent enough to lower the quality of their respective albums.
Occasionally, The Weeknd will mention "bitches" and "real niggas", and while that's expected, even appropriate, for rappers with a streetwise image, when you're the Jon Anderson of your respective genre you might wish to consider dropping the tough guy act and just focus on getting laid. Unfortunately, it crops up often enough to be distracting from the magnificent aural aesthetics, and occasionally Tesfaye will drop the ball in ways that defy the imagination. I played "Wicked Games" for my boss and when, in a passionate falsetto, he belts out "Let me seeeeeee that aaaassssssss" as though all the world hinged on his request, neither of us could resist cracking up right then and there. (Which is a shame, because otherwise it's by far the best song on the album)
At least The Weeknd is distinctly doing his own thing, though. Near the end of Nostalgia/Ultra, Frank Ocean displays a spectacular degree of laziness that threatens to derail the entire work upon first listen. "American Wedding" is, simply put, Frank Ocean singing over "Hotel California". He changes the lyrics, but he intones every line nearly exactly the same as the original song and doesn't make any alterations whatsoever to the backing track- it's hard to keep your jaw from dropping as he lets the entire song run from start to finish, with no changes, even down to the guitar solo, which he doesn't sing over. No shit, when he does the exact same thing with MGMT's "Electric Feel" for the closing track you're less awed at his contempt for anything resembling production ingenuity in these final moments than you are just glad that the song doesn't have an instrumental interlude that Ocean will allow to wail on totally without input.
Don't let the fact that I've spent the last couple of paragraphs detailing the relative flaws of these two albums sour you on them, however. They're both spectacular works otherwise, and I have a feeling they're both going to be on my top 10 for 2011 by the time the year wraps up. With Nostalgia/Ultra's captivating lyricism and House of Balloons' incomparable production, they're both strong testaments to the respective strengths of their genre and are well worth having in the collection of anyone looking for smart, memorable, creative music in an otherwise rather dire year. As long as you're not expecting total perfection-and you really never should when you go out looking for music-you'll find a truly worthwhile pair of albums in Frank Ocean and The Weeknd's respective debuts, and all it'll cost you is space on your hard drive.