The Weeknd’s rise to a more commercial point in his career has been both an interesting one and an inevitable one. He first got his name releasing three mixtapes (now known as ‘Trilogy’) that featured dark ethereal production with The Weeknd (Aka Abel Tesfaye) jumping on the new wave of experimental RnB singers with him singing of how he’s a guy who uses women, does drugs and parties all the time with distinctively depressed undertones. He continued this formula onto his first commercial studio album ‘Kissland’ which failed not only because the aesthetic became tiring, but because for the first time the formula seemed extremely bland and Abel’s songwriting wasn’t up to scratch either.
The recent success for The Weeknd starts with the song he made for the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ soundtrack, ‘Earned It’. The song took a much more commercial approach to song-writing with Abel ditching a large part of the experimentation from his early works. Although this song isn’t a good indicator for the subject matter that’s tackled on his new album, it was a good indicator for the way that he was about to change his music sonically. ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ represents a change in stylistic approach for Abel and a well needed one if he were to stay relevant, with him bringing on a whole host of guest producers including big names like Kanye West; Abel has essentially updated what he was already doing before on previous projects.
A massive portion of ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ features gorgeous production. One of the first singles for the album, ‘Often’ features some extremely eerie production with manipulated vocals hanging in the background like a ghost and Abel’s vocals slyly coming in over the top (all sexy like). The Kanye West co-produced ‘Tell Your Friends’ contains some of the classiest production on the whole album, and the back-end of the track features some distorted guitars that sound very ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’-esque. ‘Real Life’ featuring the English singer Labrinth once again goes for a more classy sound, with there being blaring horns and big breakdowns throughout the composition. Labrinth himself does a good job of sounding smooth over the top of the beat as well really trying to seize his moment on such a big project. On the flipside we have tracks that are much more Urban-based with massive blaring bass coming out on tracks like ‘The Hills’. It’s in this setting that Abel works best as a singer, and although his vocals in the verses of this song sound slightly forced with soppy sadness, the chorus sounds absolutely huge.
This is easily the most ambitious thing that The Weeknd has put out, with him attempting to tackle so many different styles of music on this one record. On some of these styles he slots in like a glove (The Hills, Often, and the pop banger ‘Can’t Feel My Face) but in other spots he sounds out of place. This is mostly evident on some of the collaborations; the aforementioned ‘Losers’ with Labrinth would sound so much more grand and less hindered had it just been a Labrinth song from start to finish because when that breakdown hits Abel’s vocals just sound so ill-fitting. Elsewhere Ed Sheeran sounds so fantastic over the low-key instrumentation of ‘Dark Times’ that it’s slightly dis-heartening when The Weeknd actually does come onto the track to sing, not because he’s particularly that bad, but because it come have been done so much better. Most of the time when the instrumentals are either more synthetic or more minimal Abel doesn’t sound so overbearing with the fake sadness that he puts on in his vocals,but when the instrumentation is already pretty out-there, it can become too much.
The fake sadness that has both been a blessing and hindrance in the Weeknd’s previous material comes back here with a vengeance and is the main point where Abel shows very little in terms of progress in subject matter. Some of the songs really do rely on the fact that The Weeknd, as a character in his music is this lost soul who goes around sleeping with as many girls as possible and doing drugs. The thing is he rarely actually gives us any reason to sympathise with him or feel sorry for the reason he does all these things. He attempts to glorify this lifestyle on songs like ‘Tell Your Friends’ and ‘Often’ and although he does offer some respite to give us food for thought on these tracks where he says lines like ‘My cousin said I made it big and it’s unusual/She tried to take a selfie at my Grandma’s funeral’ it’s very hard to feel much about it. It’s even harder for us to feel sorry for him on the track where he’s basically pleading for attention, ‘As You Are’. This song features Abel saying that he will accept these lonely girls that he sleeps with for who they are (lucky them) but turns it on it’s head and shows some vulnerability saying they won’t accept him back in the massively dramatic way possible at the end of the track. It’s meant to be a heartfelt moment but leaves you shrugging your shoulders considering it came from the guy who’s been hammering in the message that he’s got a huge ego throughout the entire album, ‘Who’s gonna fuck you like me?’
With this being said, The Weeknd’s collaboration with Lana Del Rey ‘Prisoner’ feels perfect. These guys are a match made in heaven, considering he’s always on the lookout for good girls to take advantage of and she’s always on the lookout for a bad boy to be taken advantage of. It’s one of the times in the tracklist where it doesn’t sound forced and Lana actually gives us some passion in her vocals.
Even though the subject matter of the tracks on ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ are often overly cringey and some of Abel’s attempts to go big in the instrumentals fail, this album does actually have some of The Weeknd’s best material to date sonically and people who have followed him since the beginning will probably rejoice at the fact that this is a lot better than his debut album. If the ambition from the instrumentals carries on to the next project of his and he manages to find something more substantial to talk about, it may be his magnum opus.
Best Tracks: The Hills, Often, Can’t Feel My Face, Real Life, Losers