In 2011, music listeners were witness to one of the greatest creative runs of the 21st Century, and that’s no exaggeration. Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd’s trilogy of mixtapes released that year changed the R&B landscape more than any other project in the past 5-10 years, rivaled only by Frank Ocean’s “channel ORANGE”, and were one of the biggest forces in the pioneering of Alternative R&B. However, since these incredible tapes, things have been a little bumpy for Abel, with the underwhelming major label debut “Kiss Land”, that saw him in a very uncomfortable area for his sound. The record didn’t quite embrace the darkness and depression that was so prevalent on his mixtapes, nor did it completely go for mainstream audiences, which appeared to be The Weeknd’s next step. As he kept releasing more material over the past few years, Abel had been getting more and more famous and it seemed like only a matter of time before he blew up. No one with that voice, aesthetic, and pop songwriting mastery could remain an underground act forever. Except, “Kiss Land” didn’t provide that next step, but things have been coming into fruition lately. There was the Ariana Grande feature, the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, “The Hills” getting kind of big, and then finally “Can’t Feel My Face”, certifiably a worldwide hit song. So it’s 2015 now, and due to making all of the right moves, The Weeknd is a full-fledged pop star, and while this record doesn’t match up to his mixtapes, “Beauty Behind the Madness” is very, very good., and marks a huge turning point in Abel’s growing discography.
Within the first minute of this record, it becomes immediately apparent that things are different. The Weeknd has a big budget behind him, and he’s going to use it. The opener, “Real Life” is huge and bombastic, and while we have heard grand music from him before, like “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” or “The Birds Part 1”, with all of the glistening pianos, strings, and booming drums, this sounds very clean and major label-esque when The Weeknd that I fell in love with initially was anything but. However, while this change did cause some conflicting feelings from me, which I’ll get to later, the sheer quality of this song cannot be ignored. Abel comes through with some super catchy vocal melodies on the verses, and the song is produced to a tee. The aforementioned pianos some absolutely gorgeous, and the epic nature of this opener really sets the tone for the album well. However, the very best tracks here perform a balancing act between The Weeknd’s old oppressive darkness and his new-found worldwide pop appeal.
Case in point, “The Hills”, the best song here and one of the best songs of the year so far, easily. This song has tons of eerie atmosphere with the dark melody and the reverb on Abel’s voice, but is also extremely immediate and catchy and features a huge sing-along chorus. And the beat bangs pretty hard for good measure. There is also “Often”, which features a trap flavored instrumental and one of the most memorable hooks of this year, but also contains a dark buzzing organ sound that plays throughout the track and an addictive and eerie foreign vocal sample that kind of acts as the structure for the song’s melody. It’s songs like these ones, and others like “Acquainted” and “As You Are” (which features a “Loft Music”-esque outro) that make “Beauty Behind the Madness” unique in that it embraces pop and mainstream appeal, while also subtly calling back to The Weeknd’s past. Dirty “Often” up a bit and it could land on “Thursday”, and you could do the same with “Acquainted”.
Another song that stands out here is “Tell Your Friends”, as it is maybe the least radio ready track on the record. Co-produced by Kanye West and Mike Dean, the song rides on a gorgeous soul sample and is much more lyric focused than anything else here, and with all of the pervasive cursing, sex, and drug talk, it definitely hearkens back to the days of:
“Let me see that ass,
look at all this cash”
“For my niggas out tonight, and they high off Shakespeare lines.”
This song is also noteworthy as Abel dives into his backstory, reminiscing about his former homelessness, robbing people with his best friend Lamar, and connecting that with his fame now, stating that he still hasn’t changed, saying that he is “still rockin’ camo” and he still rolls with shooters. Lyrically, this song comes off as full of personality and is extremely quotable, especially with the line,
“And everybody around you is so basic.
I’m never rockin’ white I’m like a racist.”
To sum up the highlights on this record, tracks 1-11 range from good to incredible, culminating in the Michael Jackson influenced “In the Night”, which is a straight up pop tune with one of the catchiest and most bombastic hooks on the entire album. However, this album doesn’t end after the low-key “Loft Music” throwback “As You Are”. It keeps going for three more songs that ultimately way the album down in a huge way.
Track 12, “Dark Times” featuring Ed Sheeran is truly painful. I don’t like Ed Sheeran, and I hate his voice, and his face, and everything he stands for in music, and to hear him infect one of my favorite artists’ albums was hard to listen to, but the Lana Del Rey collaboration on the next track, an artist I like a lot, didn’t fare much better. The production and structure on this song was extremely messy, the melodies didn’t stand out, and honestly this song came off as wasted potential. The Weeknd and Lana could make an interesting duo, but not like this. And sadly, the closer, “Angel” is another dud. The instrumental is ultimately what weighs this track down, as it is pretty much a cheesy re creation of cheesy arena rock, the exact opposite of what I want The Weeknd to sing over. Honestly, this album could have ended at track 11. Maybe the album would have been a little short, but “As You Are”, with the aforementioned outro, is dramatic enough to be a closer, as we didn’t need shoe horned in Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey collaborations and an arena ballad. Definitely not.
However, as much as this album trails off at the very end, tracks 1-11 are damn near flawless, combining The Weeknd’s old darkness with his new pop appeal, and bringing in plenty of pop influences and even a kickass Kanye collaboration. But as much as I like this album, I still can’t help but feel a little weird about it. This is a classic case of an underground/indie artist that you’re a fan of breaking out onto the mainstream stage and cleaning up their sound. While I am happy for Abel, it is still a little disheartening to know that the experimental and dark The Weeknd that I fell in love with is going to be put on the back burner for pop songs. Which again, is fine, considering how good this album is, but I’m holding out hope that his next project will be a bit of a return to his past aesthetic. Because as good as this record is, it doesn’t really hold a candle to his mixtapes, although then again, most things don’t.
Standout Tracks: “Real Life” “Tell Your Friends” “Often” “The Hills” “Acquainted” “Earned It” “In the Night”