Beauty Behind the Madness
The Weeknd wants to be a star. Complex said as much when the Toronto-born singer/songwriter/producer appeared on its cover in 2013 for his first-ever interview. Back then he was a shadowy figure best known for his strange haircut, work on Drake’s sophomore album, Take Care, and a trilogy of mixtapes released in 2011 that cemented his status as the No. 1 purveyor of dungeon R&B. To many it seemed as if he was content making music that appealed to a very specific audience: those for whom overly saccharine lovelorn tales were as appealing as a bottle of O’Douls. They were wrong. The Weeknd wanted more.
After inking a deal for his XO label with Universal/Republic, the Weeknd went to work on his official debut album, Kiss Land. To make it, he left behind the producers and writers who helped him craft the three opuses that introduced him to the world. The result was an album that though technically proficient felt like a misguided retread of his old material. It wasn’t what his day ones wanted, and it surely wasn’t what was needed in order to recruit a new legion of fans. To right those wrongs, the Weeknd linked back up with Illangelo, the producer who worked on his early mixtapes and, more importantly, enlisted the help of some of pop music’s biggest names: Max Martin and Kanye West.
The results have been astounding. After scoring his first top 10 hit with Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder,” the Weeknd notched another one with “Earned It” from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. To balance out the pop-leaning fare, he and Illangelo struck gold with the dark and depraved ode to late night booty calls “The Hills.” Then, in one of the most unexpected plot twists in modern music, the Max Martin-produced “Can’t Feel My Face” became the surprise hit of the year (save for any of Fetty Wap’s singles), reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
The question then became: Could the Weeknd find that delicate balance of pop and the profane?
A few listens to his new album proves that the answer is yes, he can.
Beauty Behind the Madness is an exercise in compromise. Thematically, not much has changed. Now 25, the Weeknd is still singing about working through his trust issues and using various substances to numb himself from the pain those issues cause. The lecherous lyrics that built his core are still here, but the beats are larger, more capacious, and more lush. The project has a grandiosity that harkens back to late-’80s pop and rock. If there is any connective tissue bounding this album together it’s the idea that the Weeknd doesn’t have to fundamentally change who he is in order to became a superstar.
If there is any connective tissue bounding this album together it’s the idea that the Weeknd doesn’t have to fundamentally change who he is in order to became a superstar.
The best example of this, of course, is “Can’t Feel My Face,” probably the most wonderfully duplicitous hit song in a long while. Backed by a wobbling bass line and chords that feel both fresh and familiar, the Weeknd manages to make a song about coke palatable enough for literally everyone and their mothers to enjoy. It’s a win/win.
The tactic works to great effect elsewhere on the album. The Kanye West-produced, piano-driven “Tell Your Friends” sounds as if it could have fit perfectly on R. Kelly’s R. and, on the off-chance that you forgot, has the Weeknd reminding us that he’s that “nigga with the hair, singing 'bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.” He goes a bit further, though, opening up about life before success and the new discomforts that fame brings: “My cousin said I made it big and it's unusual, she tried to take a selfie at my grandma's funeral.”
That last bit shows a growth in the Weeknd’s songwriting that unfortunately isn’t more prevalent throughout the album. There’s not much in the way of motive or the machinations that make a man live the life he lives. As a sort of consolation we do see a wizened take on his romantic affairs. Whereas a younger Weeknd was completely nihilistic and would court women whom he didn't seem to care about one way or the other with reckless abandon, the more mature Weeknd displays regular ol’ human emotions. Now, instead of bedding women and then discarding them, he issues a warning like the one he does on the excellent “Dark Times,” a bluesy confessional featuring Ed Sheeran where he sings, “this ain’t the right time for you to fall in love with me.” The album’s closer, “Angel,” is a lovely but overwrought piece of hair metal that has him pleading to a woman that she find somebody else to love. This, from the guy who sang “Initiation,” is growth.
Beauty Behind the Madness offers various takes on the Weeknd’s realization that he's unable to escape a life that he describes as “empty and so cold” on the Lana Del Rey duet “Prisoner.” He's managed to make the most out of the confines of that world, and thanks to a few keen concessions he was able to score much-needed hits. Will this album make him a star? Yes. Consider "Can't Feel My Face" a coronation. But in order to continue shining, he will need to share even more.