Sometimes an artist will abandon their inhibitions and make a damn pop record, which typically signifies a paradigm shift for an artist that is trying to reach out to a broader audience. Here with The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, we find the Canadian crooner sorting through all of his coked out nights of sexual conquest and reticent anxiety to find love and pop accessibility, and it sounds great!
Abel Tesfaye, otherwise known has The Weeknd, has been getting a lot of attention in the past couple of years for his sleazy and sexy R’n’B, the slick beats and semi-lecherous vocals of the Weeknd encapsulate what it is like to be decadent in this day and age with hook-ups and drugs, late nights or all nights, Tesfaye captures all of his wild times in his music. This guy is Pop music’s Casanova with a Tinder account and is completely unabashed when it comes to his sexual prowess, which he can detail at great length in his songs. His come ons and declarations can be construed as extremely platitudinal but his honeyed vocals along with his acerbic lyrics makes the listening experience so much fun and a little alluring.
Here with BBTM we see Tesfaye chronicling a story in the form of an ambitious 14 track album that starts with the Weeknd we know, a hard partying hook-up machine who doesn’t care about his self destructive nature, then gradually veers into, dare I say it, monogamy? With great, sexy jams in the opening tracks like “Losers”, “Tell Your Friends” and the 808 boom and swoon of “Often” you’re hooked in with his boasts of virile, hard drug use and grade A cheese. It’s with “The Hills” that impressed me early on, which shows Tesfaye transmuting from mellifluous to commanding over an insatiable single about him being better when he’s f**ked up, which doesn’t sound radio friendly but very much a Weeknd kind of radio hit.
It’s at the halfway point of the record that you realize that Tesfaye has found love, he exuberantly parallels the sensation of falling for this person to a cocaine high in designated song of the summer “Can’t Feel My Face”, Swed Pop hitmaker Max Martin produced this track into the catchy funk gold that has gotten Tom Cruise to lip sync to it, and I don’t there’s a more stark measure of success than Tom Cruise getting down to your big hit. I try to not invite the comparison but it would be foolish to deny Tesfaye’s reverence to Michael Jackson on this record, this isn’t really news to you if you heard his amazing cover of the late king of pop’s “Dirty Diana” but here on BBTM, he tries to emulate MJ’s enigmatic vocal style and delivery and pulls it off without reproach.
Especially with the anthemic “In the Night”, he utilizes the same percussive vocal breaks MJ used in the latter part of his career and completely blows the roof off in the chorus with commanding vocals that demand your attention. Pop purists may cringe at the idea of a contemporary artist doing MJ well but trust me when I say that The Weeknd is a hyper sexual, zonked out homage to MJ. After this incendiary track it seems that sadness sinks in with “As You Are”, where we see him trying to prepare himself for heartbreak. This song captures the hurt as it fades into a haunting outro of lingering echoes and keys. With the double feature of guest stars for “Dark Times” and “Prisoners” Tesfaye trades dejected verses with a hard-pressed-to-be-aloof Ed Sheeran and a very-much-in-her-element Lana Del Rey about embracing the darkness and running from love.
What makes these tracks and album closer “Angel” so heartbreaking is the solace he finds in the lonely party that is a perennial place for him and wishes only the best for this estranged love of his. He’s too f**ked up to settle down, or at least he but realizes what he is losing in the process. It’s easy to think of the sentiment you find in Bill Wither’s bittersweet “Hope She’ll Be Happier” when listening to these three tracks, the album in all of it’s madness reveals the beauty of his candor, the veil pulled away to reveal a man who is lonely and foresees only isolation in all of his success. At moments on this record the lyrics lean more towards mawkish than sincere, but it’s in the album we see him dig deeper and come out with some self discovery about what his self destruction comes from, the desire to be loved and not so f**ked up.
The opening half of the album is the same saccharine pop he has found success from, which isn’t really bad because with someone as dynamic as Tesfaye and a record produced into polished pop perfection it’s a fun listen, but for the tacit ambition that BBTM has for itself, it feels trite for him to go on this journey from sex machine to loner, which we can hear in an artist’s whole career let alone a single record. Up until “Can’t Feel My Face” it feels like I’m listening to his last album Kiss Land, but after completing the whole record, the narrative is incredible for an album about coke lines, fellacio and malaise contrasted by falling in and losing love and embracing the crushing loneliness. Which sounds crazy but if you go through this record from start to finish, maybe you’ll find the beauty behind it all.