By Cameron Messinides ’19
Since recording a cover of “Dirty Diana” on his 2011 mixtape Echoes of Silence, Abel Tesfaye — better known as The Weeknd — has pushed his sound from the dark, morose brooding of his early R&B work to more extravagant, pop-influenced tracks, and in Beauty Behind the Madness (Republic Records), his second studio album, he very obviously takes Michael Jackson as a model for that transition. The Weeknd is on the rise, with radio singles like “Can’t Feel My Face” topping charts worldwide, and he seems to know he cannot sustain that success with the same dusky sound of his roots. He struggles in this release to reconcile his old sound with the demands of a broader fanbase, as well as the question of how to couch the depression and darkness of his music within the life of a global superstar. At several points, his risks pay off, and his take on the modern pop hit breathes delightful variety into the genre at large. The tracks can feel jumbled, jumping from one style to the next with little logic, and the strong front half of this album is undercut by a disorienting second half. However, although the current execution at times feels more thrown-together than Thriller, Beauty Behind the Madness lays out a musical vocabulary searching beyond the old shadows of the party and the drug haze, and that experimentation pushes unrelentingly towards an exciting new direction for The Weeknd.
In the album’s opening track, “Real Life,” The Weeknd makes one thing clear: he is still the disloyal, sinful, pitiful, self-sabotaging party animal we all know him to be. Although this opening track plays with arrangements brand-new to his musical vocabulary — string sections to back him and some of the most adventurous electric guitar chords he’s attempted thus far — he cries out again and again of his destructiveness, how he “wasn’t made for lovin’.” “Real Life” makes an interesting case study for the entire album. In one song, The Weeknd pays homage to an idol (his “Mama called me destructive… / Said it’d ruin me one day” echoes a similar warning from Michael Jackson’s mother in “Billie Jean”) while also displaying the new places he wants to take his music. He balances staying true to the themes he has always explored while also trying to step out of the shadowy world he created for himself in the Trilogy mixtapes and into the spotlight. For the most part, all these elements align in “Real Life,” and the track delivers a coherent, if a bit repetitive, thesis for Beauty Behind the Madness. The question after this opening, though, is can he pull off this juggling act for the whole album?
After “Real Life,” The Weeknd downshifts into “Losers,” a slower and darker track that feels like a trek through the inside of his head, rumbling through associations like “Stupid’s next to ‘I love you.’” This song also brings on the album’s first feature, the British singer-songwriter Labirinth, but given the opportunity to create tension with conflicting messages or at least hint at a perspective besides The Weeknd’s coked-up after-party melancholy, these artists do neither. Labirinth retreads the same lyrical ground as the Weeknd, and the song cycles through itself emptily. The outro, however, is a pleasure–vibrant, loose jazz instrumentation, another new sound for The Weeknd.
That outro leads into the core of the album, where The Weeknd really seems to hit his stride, beginning with “Tell Your Friends.” Kanye West’s production defines the track, his trademark looped samples spearheading the intro, and for the first time on this album, The Weeknd not only introduces new elements and instruments, but blends them seamlessly with his vocals. Here, the slow pattern from the drum machine mixes with summery electric guitar chords to create something almost like West Coast funk, and through it all, The Weeknd pushes and pulls with the beat, his voice filling in the empty spaces between the chords and landing on every crashing cymbal just right. He sings with defiance of how money and fame have only magnified his persona as “that nigga with the hair / Singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.” In a track so focused on the gray area where his young stardom and old lifestyle meet, the proof is in the pudding–“Tell Your Friends” puts forth a compelling example of where The Weeknd is headed with his new sound.
The next few songs on the tracklist, many of them singles released prior to the album, take the reins from “Tell Your Friends” and drive relentlessly forward. “Often” dips back into The Weeknd’s dark, sexual arrogance, complete with warped background samples, but now augmented by drums and bass worthy of a club track. In “The Hills,” he throws his strongest modulation yet on his voice and combines it with a creeping synth bass to take the listener into a dusty, unnerving corner of his psyche, where he delivers lines with jarring honesty — “I only fuck you when it’s half past five / The only time I’d ever call you mine / …when I’m fucked up that’s the real me, babe.” Next, “Acquainted” features driving bass and drums like “Often,” but it doesn’t bring the same confident message. The Weeknd laments over the trap he has created for himself; every time he tries to run, “the fast life keeps gaining on [him].” Right on cue, in comes “Can’t Feel My Face,” and The Weeknd jumps full bore into the fast life, calling once more on the influence of Michael Jackson to create a funky dance track full of breathy be-bopping and disco synths. Taken as a whole, this arc of songs forms the most logical, surprising, and lively section of Beauty Behind the Madness. They present an array of possibilities for The Weeknd moving forward, none any less exciting than the next, and offer up a version of his artistry with much broader range than one might expect from his previous work.
The second half of this album, however, takes an odd and stumbling set of turns. “Shameless” marks the midway point and sounds like The Weeknd’s acoustic cover of himself, his same dark soprano layered over a strumming guitar and out-of-nowhere tambourine that don’t quite fit together. From there, he finds a place to slot in “Earned It,” the single from the Fifty Shades of Gray soundtrack — too mega-popular to leave off the album, but again, another track with a tempo and arrangement that strays from the fusion of pop and R&B that succeeded in the first half of the album. “In the Night” forms an even stronger tribute to Michael Jackson — more disco synths, more 80s pop drums, and electronic background vocals echoing around The Weeknd’s pretty spot-on MJ impression. On its own, the track actually creates pleasant surprises as it reveals The Weeknd’s artistic take on Jackson, and interesting tensions crop up when he chooses to digress from the 80s pop template with hints of his dusky basslines.
Next comes “As You Are,” a surprisingly powerful sucker punch in this jumble of a B side. The Weeknd takes what sounds at first like a trite love song and drags it down with his depravity, delivering a haunting, foreboding message of young love headed south. The outro, reminiscent of the quavering, hazy production on his mixtapes, packs an especially heavy-hitting dose of heartbreak. “Baby, won’t you take me as I am,” he sings, almost slurring his words. After the album’s torrent of partying, bravado, and rebuttals of love, this about-turn, with The Weeknd calling for acceptance and commitment, makes a well-timed tug at the heartstrings as he prepares to close Beauty Behind the Madness.
But, he closes with a confusing triad of tracks, and the album’s already-erratic message is diluted even further by the choice to bring on two final features at the end: Ed Sheeran for “Dark Times” and Lana Del Rey for “Prisoner.” Sheeran brings an acoustic sound, and as with “Shameless,” The Weeknd doesn’t adapt his voice to make the track coherent. Del Rey’s style works better in concert with The Weeknd’s, but it keeps “Prisoner” trapped in the dusty, dark sound he spent the first half of the album trying to leave. The final track, “Angel,” completely leaves behind that darkness, yet it still doesn’t succeed in shedding any more light on the message he tries to deliver in the closing of this album. The twinkling piano-driven ballad perhaps describes the end of the relationship that was falling apart in “As You Are,” but does it with none of the same energy and emotion. He throws everything from dramatic keyboard compositions to the sound of a children’s choir behind him in this track, and that slapdashery leads to nothing but confusion over what the song is getting across at all.
“Angel,” however, sounds messy only because it embodies The Weeknd’s struggle to explore new directions and meld them into his music. Experimentation is a vital tool in any artist’s pocket, and The Weeknd displays it in spades in this album. Although some risks take him on tangents that could not then find their logical place in this album, patience with the whole record pays off and reveals the skeleton of a theme that his digressions sometimes obscured. The extravagance of superstardom, disco hits, and casual sex gives way to a softer, quieter soul searching for a way to reconcile the party life with a desire, despite all denial of it, for love. In Beauty Behind the Madness, his music mimics his love life. Through all the auditory mess, the one-night stands with the tambourine and the piano, the off-and-on relationship with MJ’s influence, his quest is surprisingly pure and simple. The Weeknd is here to find a new and rising voice, one he can commit to wholeheartedly, and if what he’s displayed in this album is any indication of what lies ahead, we should all be excited for the day he finds it.