The Weeknd wants to be a pop star. His music has been hinting at it since his spine-tingling cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” But bluntly singing about women and drugs on his previous four projects wasn’t getting him where he wanted.
Beauty Behind the Madness is different. On this effort, it sounds like he wants to grow up, but his life experiences won’t let him. He’s officially gone pop, yet still remains himself somehow.
The album starts with “Real Life,” which is his most personal intro yet. The intros on Trilogy and KissLand reference someone (mostly drug-ridden girls), but now he speaks about himself, and what life has done to him. These are his very first words uttered: “Tell ’em this boy wasn’t meant for lovin’/Tell ’em this heart doesn’t stay to one.” He even mentions that his mother called him destructive and told him that his lifestyle would ruin him one day. Although it seems like a straight ripoff of Michael Jackson’s infamous “Billie Jean” pre-chorus line, “Mama always told me be careful of who you love, And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth,” it’s more believable and darker when it comes from Abel Tesfaye.
“Real Life” isn’t a deep track, but it’s a perfect opener. It also allows Abel to introduce himself to the masses― his newfound fans― without scaring them off too soon.
The last time Abel opened with a guitar-heavy track was “Lonely Star” on Thursday, which was more distorted, hazy and haunting. This time around he conforms to a traditional song structure with clear vocals that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Next up is “Losers,” which screams teen rebellion, with Labrinth’s raspy vocals flowing way better on the beat than The Weeknd.
After that? A song that all Weeknd fans will love, and will restore their faith that was lost in his recent singles. “Tell Your Friends” is produced by Kanye West. Not just any Kanye, jaw-wired-shut-Kanye. It’s as if The Weeknd was given one song on the entire album to be as ignorant as possible ― and it’s amazing. This cut is understandably soulful, and sounds much less hollow and distant than most of The Weeknd’s material. The song opens up with the line, “We are not the same I am too reckless/I’m not tryna go in that direction,” which sets the tone for the next three minutes. Abel’s become really comfortable with who he is, even referring to himself as “that nigga with the hair/ Singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.”
Although the language and anxious sexuality is nothing new, it’s never been so clear. It basically sums up The Weeknd of his entire first mixtape, House of Balloons in one song, a shadowy enigmatic teenager who sees the world as his oyster, as long as it includes partying, drugs, and girls to brag about.
But elsewhere on Beauty Behind the Madness, the teenage angst has turned into self-loathing, and the self-loathing is a little too convincing. “Often” is next, a typical Weeknd song with the title referring to drug consumption and engagement in careless, hazy, casual sex. The hard-hitting 808s and reverbed voices add a sense of normalcy. It’s followed up by “The Hills,” which provides a shot of espresso into the album as it clunks along. His voice is very reminiscent of the entire Thursday mixtape. The song’s narrative is about a sinking sexual affair in which Abel sets the record straight about what this woman truly means to him. He reminds her that she’s an equally guilty player in the blame game as the addictive base pulls you in.
If “The Hills” is the party, then its follow-up, “Acquaintance” is the come down. Similar to his shift in objective during The Party & The After Party, Abel drifts towards a woman he doesn’t need. He belts out, “I got you touchin’ on ya body” throughout the chorus, which is very reminiscent of the Trilogy era. The song also symbolizes that dichotomy of Abel trying to become a mainstream pop star, while his core fans want him to stay the same. These exact sentiments are heard in “Rolling Stone,” on which he predicts his future:“ Love me/Before they all love me/Until you won’t love me/Because they all love me.”
With The Weeknd being an emotional masochist, “Earned It,” is pretty tame for a movie about BDSM. Albeit very catchy, it may be a little too classy and orchestra-filled for typical fans.
“In the Night” sounds like a song from The Who, or an amazing interpretation of “Billie Jean” that’s too forthcoming and obvious. It’s clearly an ’80s-inspired songsthat could’ve fit perfectly in Scarface as a coked up Al Pacino stares at Michelle Pfeiffer dancing the night away― also known as pop-radio gold.
After the wild night of partying comes “As Your Are,” which has the same vibe as “Echoes of Silence,” the final installation of The Trilogy effort, and is very reminiscent of Phil Collins’ hit, “In the Air,” or any Tears for Fears album with the same infectious airiness as the vocals float along the beat.
One of the standout tracks on the album is “Prisoner,” featuring Lana Del Rey. Although a collaboration between the two is practically three years overdue, it was well worth the wait. Lana is Abel’s female counterpart, and her hollowed melancholy voice suits the laid back nature of the track as The Weeknd admits: “I’m a prisoner to my addiction/I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.”
The album’s second and final featured artist is Ed Sheeran on “Dark Times.” Ironically, Sheeran’s verse comes off cold and sad, while The Weeknd’s sounds chill on a normal night as he roams the streets of Toronto. However it’s good to see The Weeknd playing nice with another singer, and the song is a welcome addition to the album. It’s rare that a R&B collaboration between two men works as well as this one.
The closing track, “Angel” finds Abel at his lowest point― which always happens at the end of his projects― as he releases his latest conquest so she can find a lover who actually cares about her.
In comparison to the rest of The Weeknd’s discography, thematically, not much has changed on Beauty Behind The Madness― but sonically everything has changed. As his talent grows, his conscience does as well, which will continue to affect his music.
Exactly one year before Beauty Behind The Madness dropped, Abel released “King Of The Fall” on YouTube. He sings: “We back/ On some young Quincy Jones, dark skin Michael Jackson.” Yes, The Weeknd’s latest is a Michael Jackson-esque pop album. If you accept it for what it is, then you can enjoy it in that vein.
It’s easy to liken Beauty Behind the Madness to Kanye West’s Graduation, as the music sounds a bit more mainstream and grander.
But really, Abel just wants to get stadium status.
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