Beauty Behind The Madness is The Weeknd’s most ambitious release yet and has a handful of strong tracks, but his transition to pop stardom lacks consistently good songwriting.
To say that The Weeknd has come a long way is an understatement. After all, going from almost complete anonymity to international chart topping success in less than five years is a huge achievement for any artist. It’s an even bigger surprise to see The Weeknd stepping up to the plate considering how much time and effort singer Abel Tesfaye spent trying to keep in the dark. He doesn’t immediately come across as a typical pop star, describing himself through his music as an emotional introvert trapped by his dependence on loveless one night stands and drug abuse. These themes went hand in hand with the dark, ethereal and moody production of his first three mixtapes and set a new bar for alternative R&B, acting as the perfect backdrop to Tesfaye’s undeniably phenomenal voice and self-destructive lyrics.
But now The Weeknd is out of the dark and has embraced a new-found pop sensibility, most obviously in his blockbuster single, ‘Can’t Feel My Face.’ It’s refreshing to hear Abel effortlessly singing over a solid beat, catchy bass lines and soaring backing vocals. He strikes a great balance between the pop instrumentals and the darker subtext of drug addiction in what seems like a typical love song at first glance. Not only is ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ a huge summer pop hit, it’s a message to the world that makes The Weeknd’s ambitions clear. From his cover of ‘Dirty Diana’ in Echoes of Silence to this 80’s pop influenced track, it’s obvious that Tesfaye’s admiration of Michael Jackson has given him some high career aspirations. And despite their much darker subject matter and production style more reminiscent of Kiss Land, ‘Often’ and ‘The Hills’ still hold their own as accessible, radio friendly(ish) singles from the album.
It’s not just on ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ that The Weeknd branches out into new territory; Beauty Behind The Madness sees Tesfaye experimenting with stylistic changes throughout, albeit with varying success. The piano chords of ‘Tell Your Friends’ are finger-snappingly soulful thanks to the production input of Kanye West and it’s a huge step away from the cold and sinister atmosphere of Echoes of Silence. Though lyrically speaking, ‘Tell Your Friends’ is much of what we’ve come to expect from Abel- the sex and drugs are all still there but it’s not nearly as drenched in his usual melancholy. He feels confident in this track as he reflects on his career thus far, promising not to let his popularity change him before challenging listeners to tell their friends that he’s still “popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.”
Unfortunately, Beauty Behind The Madness suffers from a lack of memorable tracks and even a few that drag the entire album down. ‘Losers’ is a trainwreck of a song where the production and instrumentation go completely overboard. There’s an inexplicably Madeon-esque electro house chorus and a downright cheesy brass section in the outro. What’s more is that Labrinth is easily the weakest guest feature on this album and can’t compete with the jaw-dropping chemistry between Tesfaye and Lana Del Rey in ‘Prisoner’ (Del Rey and Tesfaye are two sides of the same coin when it comes to dark themes and it’s like they were born to duet). While it’s interesting to see The Weeknd take these kinds of risks, ‘Losers’ is the sore thumb of the album and could have easily been cut from the 14 song track list.
‘Angel’ is a poor album closer, a ballad that just overstays its welcome and isn’t entirely convincing either. Tesfaye has never gone to such lengths to appear as a martyr, and it feels entirely self-pitying and forced. He has explored the consequences of his lifestyle with much more emotional complexity in the past and without the need for painful lines like “all I see are wings, I can see your wings.” If anything, ‘As You Are’ proves that Tesfaye is more than capable of carrying emotion without cheap or abrasive lyrics in the song’s vast and atmospheric two minute outro. Only relying on a few words and the swelling instrumentals beneath him, he soars over the track with his heart-breaking falsetto.
Beauty Behind The Madness sees Abel struggling to strike a balance. For an artist with a back catalogue as dark as his, the transition to pop superstar was never going to be an easy challenge. The lyrics are a little predictable in places and the production and artistic direction lacks consistency. Though despite its missteps, this album isn’t a bad first step into the next stage of The Weeknd’s career, with the best songs rising well above the weaker moments of this hour long album. Hopefully he learns to refine the balance between old and new on his next releases because if he does, he could easily become the biggest musical force of the decade.
Beauty Behind The Madness is out now via XO and Republic Records.