Beauty Behind The Madness
The Weeknd aka Abel Tesfaye has recently risen from being a popular cult artist to having one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year. His rise to global popularity has been driven largely by appearances on the soundtracks of both The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, not to mention being all over Apple’s recent promotional materials for its new Apple Music service and headlining the event where it was launched. Pieces in high profile publications such as The New York Times, Rolling Stone and GQ swiftly followed. For someone who actively tried to hide his identity early in his career, it’s quite the departure.
Tesfaye’s music has evolved in a similar way. Trilogy, a compilation of the first two years of his work as an artist, revelled in its sheer depravity. The narrative is almost entirely about doing drugs, drinking and having sex with the most emotionally damaged girls you could imagine. If you had a teenage daughter, you’d give her a copy of The Marshall Mathers LP or a GG Allin record instead. That said, there is a villainous charm to The Weeknd persona and musically he absolutely has the talent to back it up. For the uninitiated (a pun that long time fans will get), songs like ‘Twenty Eight’, ‘Wicked Games’, ‘House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls’, ‘The Party & The After Party’ and his stunning cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’ – entitled ‘D.D.’ – are all as good as or better than the material that has really pushed his rise to superstardom.
2013’s Kiss Land was, in many ways, a transitional album from the style of Trilogy to Beauty Behind the Madness. Musically, it is much more radio friendly with songs like ‘Wanderlust’ getting quite a lot of airplay and attention. However, lyrically it remained almost as nihilistic as his previous material. Collaborator Jason Quenneville in the aforementioned Times article noted that if Beauty Behind the Madness was Tesfaye finally agreeing to “play ball” commercially, then “Kiss Land was, ‘O.K., let’s play baseball,’ but you’re swinging a plate of spaghetti”. Absurd a metaphor as it is, it’s a pretty accurate summation.
The key balancing act, then, is the one that almost every artist faces when they really start to become mainstream: appealing to the widest range of people possible, “playing ball” with media outlets and labels alike and not alienating the fan base that got you there in the first place. Ironically, in some ways, this push is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to The Weeknd’s career artistically. Singing exclusively about hoovering up lines of cocaine and getting blowjobs from women with no self-esteem only has so much mileage.
Also, with age (well, he’s only bloody 25, but you know what I mean) there is a palpable sense of regret and sadness creeping into his work with regard to his lifestyle that is not quite so prevalent in songs like ‘High for This’, which delight in it. Sound of the summer ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ is a key example of this, and it’s probably the cheeriest song about crippling drug addiction that you’re ever likely to hear, highlighting the juxtaposition between Tesfaye’s lifestyle and what he’s trying to become with this record. It’s also absolutely brilliant, giving even more credibility to the comparisons with in-his-prime Michael Jackson.
‘Dark Times’, an odd and somewhat off-beat collaboration with Ed Sheeran is similarly wistful, the story of two men who can’t help but get drunk and get into trouble, allowing the “dark times” to consume them all too frequently. It’s a warning to the women in their lives that they would be better off staying away. ‘Prisoner’, featuring Lana Del Rey who specialises in this sort of stuff, is the most implicit about these themes and it’s undeniably powerful. It features two of The Weeknd’s trademarks: a fantastic beat and a delicious, cathartic chorus. Lyrically, it’s also surprisingly raw but as Del Rey herself has shown, this sort of material has a very wide audience:
“I’m a prisoner to my addiction
I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold
I’m a prisoner to my decisions”
It’s difficult to tell just how sincere Tesfaye is here given that this sort of sadness about your state of affairs is now an “acceptable” way to write about substance abuse, but if he’s faking it he’s doing a pretty spectacular job. Lyrically, it is one of his strongest efforts to date.
Another subject that has seen a distinct softening is towards women and relationships. Songs like ‘Earned It’, ‘As You Are’ and ‘Angel’ are perhaps the three “sweetest” songs he has written to date (with ‘Love in the Sky’ from Kiss Land behind them, on the grounds that it falls back into being about fucking again by the end) and while it is once again questionable as to whether this comes from a desire to widen his audience it is undeniable that he knocks all three out of the park. ‘Earned It’ has been a rightful hit as one of the best pop songs of the year, while the 80s-movie-soundtrack-sounding ‘As You Are’ demonstrates his range. ‘Angel’, about finally letting the woman in his life go so she can find someone who won’t ruin her life, is also another highlight of the album both lyrically and musically.
All this is not to say that the old, bad Weeknd isn’t lurking just under the surface as he gets to shine on a couple of occasions. ‘Often’, which came out last year, features a hook which notes that Tesfaye can “make that pussy rain” before going on to “make that pussy pop and do it how I want it”. Meanwhile, ‘The Hills’ appears to be about cheating with Ariana Grande behind Big Sean’s back – however, he notes, he only ever called her when it was “half past five” or, rather, when he was out of his face. The production on both is magnificent, with the almost obscenely heavy bass of ‘The Hills’ being particularly excellent.
Other highlights include the Kanye West produced-‘Tell Your Friends’, the delightfully pop-infused and MJ-sounding ‘In The Night’, album opener ‘Real Life’ and ‘Losers’, featuring Labrinth. Indeed, there are very few missteps here – ‘Shameless’ comes off as flat and empty in comparison to everything else, but it certainly isn’t bad while ‘Dark Times’ is probably going to prove divisive amongst many fans.
It will be very interesting to see how Beauty Behind the Madness is received as it gets more and more listens. One imagines that certain types of people who have only heard ‘Earned It’ will have something amounting to a nervous breakdown upon hearing his more risqué material and in a world where taking the obvious and reductive angle that The Weeknd’s work is somehow anti-women or anti-feminist will almost guarantee attention and clicks it isn’t hard to imagine that the knives will come out for him swiftly and in great number.
There isn’t anyone quite like The Weeknd in the pop music landscape right now and that is precisely what makes his work so appealing. The edges have certainly been dulled on Beauty Behind the Madness, which is both a good and a bad thing. Primarily, it has forced his lyrical content to evolve in a manner that it may not have otherwise while his eye for a good beat and a killer hook has remained intact. What is left is one of the finest albums of the year so far that should spawn even more hit singles. He is, however, facing a very tight balancing act and it will be fascinating to see what comes next for the Toronto native.