The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness
by Anu Gulati (Computer Science/Math), published September 2nd 2015
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Following The Weeknd’s ascent into full pop stardom has been interesting. Abel Tesfaye began his career by quietly dropping “Loft Music,” “The Morning” and “What You Need” on YouTube in late 2010, where prospectors were fascinated by his chilled-out elevator music over ghostly vocals. He released three free mixtapes that were soon fused into a compilation, Trilogy, released by Universal Republic in 2012 that garnered positive acclaim and even sparked thinkpieces about where R&B was heading. Fans watched his number of Twitter followers rise as he released his middling debut studio album Kiss Land in 2013, eager to see what his new fame would bring musically.
Well, those fans got what they should have expected. In 2015, he promoted the release of Apple Music with a dance-club banger involving vocals that sound like an updated Michael Jackson, took the stage with Taylor Swift and headlined the Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival. Creating pop-influenced music is not new to The Weeknd, but Beauty Behind the Madness is entirely radio material. His career evolution isn’t indicative of creative changes but industry pressure. His early songs like “Wicked Games” were clouded with a distinct musk and contained cringeworthy, depraved lyrics of an excess lifestyle cramped into a bedroom or club. His haunting falsetto matched up perfectly with the drum and piano compositions and frightening references to drug-fueled complacency. He was commended by artists like Drake for depicting the true lifestyle of an artist with no sugar-coating, but his latest record feels like he’s traded in the expert rhythmic seduction for cheap, thrift-store lingerie.
Beauty Behind the Madness begins with The Weeknd admitting to his past mistakes, instead of describing them in his usual, flow-y storytelling way. From there, the album whirls into tasteless jazz and disco. The outro to “Losers” features a demanding horn arrangement reminiscent of this year’s “Uptown Funk” whose placement frankly doesn’t make sense. Beauty Behind the Madness is all over the place; there’s everything from a played-out electric guitar solo leading into the lecherous “Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey” to an overly excited “In the Night” where Tesfaye actually tries to sing. His songs still have catchy hooks that he repeats casually, but on Beauty Behind the Madness the repetition becomes relentless. By the end of “Tell Your Friends,” I’m not really sure anymore what he wants me to tell my friends. “Often,” one of his early radio singles, is the only saving grace that perfects his repetitive hook and even captures some of his old pretentiousness. The nihilism and confident roundabout answer of “She asked me if I do this every day / I said often” is admirable and comes across as contemporary “cock-rock.” Songs like “The Hills” are the opposite of the sexy, nonchalant “I’m better than you, girl” thing he did for years before, and as a result they sound uninspired and lazily made. He even sadly describes himself as “that nigga with the hair, singing ‘bout popping pills, fucking bitches” as if he’s fine with sliding into the media’s description of him and having nothing new to offer.
Some critics complained that Trilogy was too indulgent, but indulging in debauchery is what The Weeknd was good at. He sold an elusive life of self-abuse and corrosive addictions with music as dark as the topics themselves. He still has the same lyrical content and sometimes you feel that “emotion” from his vocal inflection and unique production come through, but the production on Beauty Behind the Madness is so generic and boring that it doesn’t matter what or how he sings. The Weeknd is the sum of all parts, production and vocals, so when he misses badly on one or the other, it just doesn’t work. With Beauty Behind the Madness, he ditches the old act that led him to success for a sloppy album of many sounds, none of which truly define him. The album cover shows torn up pieces of Tesfaye’s face, put together over something dark as if to conceal it. But behind all the madness, there’s barely any musical beauty.
Recommended Tracks: Often, Can’t Feel My Face, Shameless