“I’m that nigga with the hair
Singin’ ’bout poppin’ pills
Livin’ life so trill” (“Tell Your Friends”)
Back in 2013, Abel Tesfaye did something absolutely shocking: he put his face on the cover of his album.
What seems like the biggest piece of non-news in history was actually a big deal at the time, because despite Kiss Land‘s downright amateur-looking cover art, Tesfaye was very much averse to showing his face in public, the media hype surrounding his out-of-nowhere 2011 House of Balloons mixtape becoming so deafening that people wondered one question: “Who the hell is behind this?” Was it a guy? Was it a band? Was it iamamiwhoami? Few press photos existed at the time, which left fans of the Weeknd’s bleak afterparty R&B to scour the XO Records web presence for hints, clues, and whatever pixelated scraps of information they could find. Some outlets made a bid for traffic by publishing nothing but the latest rumors about him. Music business mogul Mark Geiger claimed that the Weeknd could make $1 million off of a single good Pitchfork review (which some didn’t take at face value since his agency also repped Pitchfork). Drake was an early supporter turned frequent collaborator turned musical BFF. A dark star was born.
All of this was great for Tesfaye, who finally gave up his mystique and started showing off his looks in his early music videos, but by the time he got signed to a major label and put his face on the cover, all the hopes Republic had of him being a major pop crossover were soon dashed, as trying to fit Tesfaye’s slow-motion laments into a Top 40 context backfired horribly. PopMatters’ own Corey Beasley weighed in, describing Kiss Land as “a mostly joyless stretch of overlong and undercooked material, [it] sounds like a mainstream artist biting the Weeknd’s style.” Not only was Kiss Land greeted with an indifferent shrug from the same critics who championed his earlier hedonistic come-ons, but nary a single song wound up charting in the US, leaving Kiss Land to falter in sales while Trilogy, a mini-box set of those first three mixtapes which were already available for free online, ended up going platinum.
Realizing that course-correction was in order, Tesfaye stopped trying to compromise his personality and instead learned how to have his laced-with-something cake and eat it too, soon finding big gloomy hooks to hang his perpetually-explicit sepia-toned verses to, first arriving in the Top 10 by guesting on Ariana Grande’s best single to date and then later revisiting the region again as a solo artist with, of all things, his contribution to the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Not only was “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)” the best song on the entire soundtrack, but the fact that radio picked up on string-heavy aphrodisiac so readily meant that Tesfaye was clearly on to something.
Thus, the long-anticipated Beauty Behind the Madness finds The Weeknd moving away from making club music for the Instagram generation to instead making straight-up club music. Chart-topper and instant pop classic “Can’t Feel My Face” struts like the Michael Jackson comeback song we never got, while the chorus to opener “Real Life” copies so liberally from the Phil Collins songbook that one may actually mistake it for a Phil Collins cover (no, really). “Last year I did all the politickin’,” he declares on the Kanye West-produced lounger “Tell Your Friends”. “This year imma focus on the vision.” No shit.
Beauty Behind the Madness is released during a year when seemingly every notable chart success referenced ’80s pop music in some way, ranging from R&B hits adapting Whitney Houston choruses to rock bands going the full John Hughes to Carly Rae Jepsen’s critically-loved new set. By the time Tesfaye gets to yet another song that shamelessly echoes Quincy Jones-era MJ in the form of the less-flashy “In the Night”, it still sounds fresh in a way that the relentlessly futuristic Kiss Land only wished it could be, even if it signals the fact that Tesfaye does occasionally lap himself in terms of texture.
Yet despite such strong highlights dropped in the album’s middle section (the acoustic guitar ballad “Shameless” easily vying for the album’s silver medal after the gold that is “Can’t Feel My Face”), Beauty ends up having a strange beast of a failing: none of the guest spots really add to the album’s overall vibe. The stop-start “Sinnerman” piano that anchors “Losers” certainly intrigues from the onset but proves repetitive by he second verse (thank goodness for the horn stabs that peppers the outro), but guest vocalist Labrinth barely makes his voice heard during his verse, clearly going for subtle but ending up anonymous by the time the song is over. Meanwhile the Lana Del Rey feature “Prisoner” is serviceable even as Rey’s verse closely toes the line of self parody (whaddaya know: she’s singing about the emptiness of Hollywood again), which leaves the lonely guitar-driven Ed Sheeran number “Dark Times”, which itself ends up feeling more like an Ed Sheeran song with a Weekend guest spot than it does the inverse, proving a bit out of step with the rest of the album but not to the point where Sheeran needs to get a tattoo detailing his regrets about it.
While the indie-rock Tumblrverse will no doubt find joy debating whether the closing hair-metal ballad “Angel” is as cheesy as Bon Iver’s own second-album-closing Hail Mary “Beth/Rest”, casual listeners may overlook the fact that even with all the spot-the-influence games the album thrusts upon you and apply damp meaning to Tesfaye’s morally-questionable lyrics, they will all be surprised to learn the fascinating-if-flawed Beauty Behind the Madness managed to distract them from the fact that it is secretly a concept album, detailing a relationship from the perspective of someone who was burned before (“What can you show me / That my heart don’t know already?” the narrator asks in “Losers”), warns his potential lover of what to expect in him (“When I’m fucked up / That’s the real me”, he blurts out during the lamp-post confessional “The Hills”), invariably falls in love despite his doubts (“Can’t Feel My Face”), and deals with a breakup due to his inability to let love into his life (“I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold” he opines during “Prisoner”).
What makes Beauty Behind the Madness so interesting is that many will find it easy to write off as Tesfaye’s big sell-out moment just as others will be quick to declare a subversive pop masterpiece. In fact, both sides are right in their own way, as Beauty swaps out the Weeknd’s traditional blacklight laments in favor of humming neon fluorescents, the party line kept intact even though all the guests are having much more fun this time around. Tesfaye still very much wants to remain true to himself while simultaneously capturing the pop zeitgeist, and although only a faint number of artists have managed to pull it off, after listening to Beauty Behind the Madness, you’ll realize that Tesfaye is closer to it than ever.