The Weeknd – Beauty Behind the Madness (Universal)
Who said rock star decadence is dead?
The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, a rags-to-riches story from the streets of Scarborough—who now duets with Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran and headlines arenas in New York and L.A..—is living large and loving it and wants you to “tell your friends about it.” It’s one thing when there’s a lyric or two about the massive quantities of drugs fuelling orgies at your house—it’s another when your entire album is a portrait of a foul, villainous coke fiend who resents the women he sleeps with.
So why is he the new prince of pop? Why do writers take him seriously when he says he wants to be the next Michael Jackson, the next Prince, the next R. Kelly? (Make what you will of that last claim.)
For starters, Tesfaye is an incredibly gifted vocalist; there’s a reason all those Jackson comparisons keep popping up (and not just because he once covered “Dirty Diana”)—and will continue to do so, thanks to tracks here like “In the Night.” The Weeknd’s first three albums—released for free online and then packaged in a box set that sold more than 500,000 copies—helped reshape modern R&B, along with Miguel and Frank Ocean, with disjointed, brooding beats.
He’s working here with established hit-makers—Max Martin (Katy Perry), Stephan Moccio (Celine Dion) among them—and it’s paid off, with a hit single originally found on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack (Earned It) and this summer’s smash, “Can’t Feel My Face”—a song which, if that’s all you know of The Weeknd, might leave you thinking that this guy is as fun and harmless as Justin Timberlake. Both songs are fantastic: one a disco smash, the other a bedroom ballad. They’re also anomalies here.
Beauty Behind the Madness drips with nihilism, contempt, and supposedly sexy scenarios that would be laughable if they weren’t so loathsome. Tesfaye sounds every bit the sexually frustrated college kid who suddenly finds himself in the spotlight and wants to exact all his revenge porn fantasies. It’s creepy and it’s gross—and it ruins some great songs. “Tell All Your Friends” is a slinky soul vamp that is, sadly, only here to serve a tiresome litany of Tesfaye’s decadence. Much of the first half of the album is no different.
Here’s the slight catch: Beauty Behind the Madness is carefully constructed as a narrative. The opener, “Real Life,” presents the narrator pushing every woman away, even his own mother. That’s followed by seven tracks of various degrees of misanthropy, before Tesfaye shifts gears on “Earned It”: suddenly, he’s repentant, realizing he actually craves intimacy. Just before this 66-minute epic record comes to an end, on a duet with Lana Del Rey, he sings, “I’m a prisoner to my addiction / I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.” Oh, okay then.
The album concludes with a power ballad called, yes, “Angel,” in which he admits that he’s not good enough for the girl of his dreams. He employs a full female choir to help him out with the closing chorus: “I hope you find somebody to love.” Apparently this Hollywood movie has a feel-good ending, where the villain reveals his humanity and frees the subject of his abuse.
That makes Beauty Behind the Madness much more interesting than a cursory listen to “Tell All Your Friends” or “The Hills” or “Shameless” might suggest. But it’s not enough: this is still a bloated, often-boring and juvenile album that serves neither the intriguing talent that gave us House of Balloons nor the generation-defining icon his ego clearly wants him to be. Stick to the singles!
Download: “Losers” (feat. Labyrinth), “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In the Night”