Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd
The Weeknd’s latest release, Beauty Behind the Madness from Republic Records, has been in the forefront of American pop music for months thanks to near-constant airplay and promotion from high-profile artists like Kanye West. The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, is one of several 20-something Canadian artists headlining R&B charts in 2015. Unlike Justin Bieber and Drake, however, The Weeknd has not attempted to showcase newfound emotional depth as his music has matured. Continuing the tone of his earlier mixtapes, Beauty Behind the Madness is an indulgent, overblown and thoroughly enjoyable experience, replicating the hazy lifestyle choices that make such music possible.
The ubiquity of songs like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Earned It” on popular radio may seem surprising given the distasteful, frequently misogynistic nature of The Weeknd’s lyrical content. On “The Hills,” he sings, “I only love it when you touch me, not feel me / When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” These themes of chemical love echo earlier tracks, such as 2012’s “Wicked Games,” where The Weeknd begs, “Bring your love baby, I could bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby, I could bring my pain.” Beauty Behind the Madness takes place in the smoke-filled shadows that follow a night of hedonistic excess, after all the people are gone and you are left with a headache and a lingering sense of guilt.
On Beauty Behind the Madness, as on the Trilogy collection, there is still the same dark, pad-heavy, orchestral production, and The Weeknd’s emotive falsetto remains in the forefront of each song. His quaking tenor has often been compared to Michael Jackson’s; indeed, there are points on this record where the listener hears more than a hint of 1980s rhythm lines. “In The Night” sounds like a world-music inspired version of Jackson, and “As You Are” begins with a Phil Collins drum fill and atmospheric New Age synths. Listeners get a rare glimpse of a healthy relationship, as The Weeknd sings, “Even though you break my heart, my love / I’mma need you, I’mma need you, I’mma need you.” Inevitably, by the end of the song, the singer’s confidence disintegrates until he squeaks out a warped plea: “You know, know baby / Won’t you take me as I am, as I am, as I am?”
On Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd accepts the villainous role he has claimed in the public eye. Usually, it works well. On the music video for “Can’t Feel My Face,” he dances across a stage in all black before erupting in flames as the audience writhes in approval. On “Tell Your Friends,” The Weeknd recounts his ascension to superstardom tongue-in-cheek and challenges us to “Go tell your friends about it” in a relaxed monotone.
When he drifts into less energetic territory, though, The Weeknd can lose the attention of even his most devoted fan base. “Dark Times (featuring Ed Sheeran)” and “Prisoner (featuring Lana Del Rey)” are two slowed-down collaborations from the tail end of this record that lack much sense of danceability or even the sinful moments that make other songs so much fun to listen to. Instead, they contrast guest vocals with reverb-laden gasps and cavernous dripping noises, as if to show that this dark backing style can work no matter how generic the lead vocal part or subject matter.
It takes a special singer to pull off an album with such unrelenting themes. One can only hear so much about sex and drugs without beginning to wonder as to the continued mental functioning of the artist behind the music. Still, if there’s anyone meant to inherit the title of captivating bad-boy pop icon, Beauty Behind the Madness makes it clear that The Weeknd is just that guy.