The Weeknd, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
One of the big questions going into the Weeknd's sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness, has been whether or not the Canadian singer has sold out.
Just four years ago, the 25-year-old crooner became a sensation after releasing a trio of highly-acclaimed mixtapes with House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. At the time, he was mysterious, not revealing his actual identity. It worked perfectly with the themes of his music: dark, brooding songs about meaningless sex and drug-fueled nights, with nothing in the spotlight.
It was a sleazy, less-glamorous side of R&B than what is normally found within the mainstream of the genre, and the Weeknd became the next big thing. Eventually he revealed himself as Abel Tesfaye, began working with big-name artists (like fellow Canadian Drake) and started consistently hitting the top ten of the Billboard pop charts with every single. This seemed like a different artist.
The Weeknd clearly is no longer the mysterious R&B wunderkind who took the internet by storm in 2011. Now that he's in the spotlight, he's making music no one would have expected years ago. The process started in 2012, with the release of Trilogy, a remastered collection of his 2011 mixtapes. A year later, he released his official debut album, Kiss Land, a project thematically in line with his early work. However, some fans felt the more polished production took away from what made him the unique artist they first heard on songs like "Wicked Games."
But growth is about moving forward. Tesfaye really stepped into his new role as a pop star when he released "Earned It" in 2014, the lead single from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The Weeknd's early material was spacey and suitable for the drugged-out themes of the song, but "Earned It" was grandiose and symphonic. It seemed for certain that he was moving out of his more niche sound of alternative-R&B to reach a more general audience.
"Can't Feel My Face" was even more out of character for the Weeknd, a funky pop song produced by super-producer Max Martin that sounds more like Michael Jackson than anything on House of Balloons or even Kiss Land. Abel sounded happy on that track, an emotion that he rarely, if ever, showed before. He even announced a collaboration with Ed Sheeran, a pop singer who seems to be on the opposite side of the spectrum from where he stands. Maybe he had shifted from the fan base that made him such a huge sensation to cater to the pop crowd.
Any of those concerns of selling out are destroyed in the context of Beauty Behind the Madness, perhaps the Weeknd's best project yet. Everything that defined him in 2011 is still here: self-destructiveness, drug addiction, getting lost in meaningless sex with somebody whose name he doesn't even know. It's all here.
On the opener "Real Life," Tesfaye admits, "Mama called me destructive / Said it'd ruin me one day / 'Cause every woman that loved me / I seemed to push them away." The Kanye West-produced "Tell Your Friends" has him telling listeners to spread the word about him. "I'm that n---- with the hair / Singing 'bout popping pills, f---ing bitches, living life so trill." The subject matter is the same for him, but he's adapting the messages to a pop audience.
This is most abundantly clear with "The Hills." Despite this song being well-produced and catchy enough to be a top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the song is vintage Weeknd. It's about a meaningless affair and Tesfaye is clear to state that it's not anything more than that.
"I only love it when you touch me, not feel me," he sings, noting that the contact isn't focused on feelings or emotional. She's just another woman in his addictions to sex. He "f---ed four bitches before I saw you." The drugs are ever-present as well, with references to how he's only the real him when he's f---ed up, and how he's started to gain a tolerance to all the substances he's consuming.
But then something happens to the Weeknd over the course of this album. Something that goes against everything he's experienced so far. He falls in love with one of the girls he comes across. He tries to avoid calling it love on "Acquainted," but he's fallen for her and tells her that nobody's ever made him feel this way. The emotions build and that eventually leads into the triumphant "Can't Feel My Face." This one girl is Tesfaye's new addiction, moreso than the drugs and casual sex. Those are still there, but this girl becomes the focus. The context of the album makes what could've originally been seen as a sell-out move into part of a greater story.
Yet this story doesn't end with the Weeknd and his new love living happily ever after. The story continues after the initial love and relationship begins.
"In the Night" is another track heavily influenced by classic Michael Jackson (even moreso than before), but there is darkness underneath. It reveals that the Weeknd's lover had a tragic, abusive past and finds herself trying to numb herself with sex to get past her pain. They have the same problems. They both have their addictions to sex with other people and drugs, and they can't get past that. Tesfaye warns the girl about falling in love with him on "Dark Times," and that no matter what he'll always relapse back into his darkness. The track is powerful, though the seemingly squeaky-clean, Taylor Swift-buddy Ed Sheeran seems out of place on it.
Everything culminates on "Prisoner," where we finally get to hear the voice of the woman with whom the Weeknd has become enamored. The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey sing about how they are addicted to their lifestyles, that their lives are meant to be empty and cold. Del Rey is an absolutely perfect choice for the track, as few others would be able to convey that feeling of coldness as she can. As they decide to leave each other, Tesfaye tells her that he hopes she can finally find love in somebody who isn't as destructive as he is.
Beauty Behind the Madness takes our expectations of the Weeknd and flips them on their heads. His trademark subject matter is still there, but they're used to tell a much grander story. It almost seems that those more pop-oriented moves that Tesfaye made were to draw mainstream listeners in, only to find the eventual sadness and emptiness. It's a macrocosm of his music as a whole, with his fans and listeners being lured into his world instead of girls looking for a high. The Michael Jackson and Prince worship is only a veneer, and what lies beneath is a much darker figure.
Beauty Behind the Madness is a brilliant, complicated release from one of pop music's most complex figures and one of R&B's most unique albums of the year.
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