I owe my college degree to The Weeknd. Let me explain – throughout those four years, whenever I needed to tune out the world and actually do my work, usually the morning it was due, nothing got me focused like the tortured murmurs and wails of Abel Tesfaye. When I was really in the zone, you could even hear me attempting to hit some of those high notes, though hopefully you didn’t. I say this to say that I have developed a certain attachment to the The Weeknd’s “old” music that might color how I feel about this latest phase of his career. But it also demonstrates just how great it was.
As we all know, in the space of a year, The Weeknd has rocketed from cult status to become one of our biggest pop stars, with two contenders for song of the summer. What is less apparent is that this was long in the making. Riding on the success of the success of his original trilogy of stellar mixtapes and sold-out tours, Abel sought to elevate his dark mood music to the next level. The initial result of this, 2013’s Kiss Land, reflected his life at that point – he was the same guy, doing the same (morally questionable) things, but with a heady cocktail of money, fame, and groupies thrown in the mix, as well as increased emotional awareness. Although I enjoyed it, the project failed to connect with the mainstream and was thus considered a failure. You see, pop success has always been the goal for The Weeknd.
His road to the top was thus incredibly well-planned. He was smart to attach himself to Drake without being overshadowed. While benefitting from the exposure and prestige, he was equally smart to quickly forge his own path. (Drake is nowhere to be found on Beauty Behind the Madness.) That launching pad lead Abel to several features on rap songs, a game he played masterfully. He usually occupied the entire first minute or two of each song, ensuring that he left an indelible mark. (I am the proud owner of a copy of “Remember You” scrubbed clean of any remnants of Wiz Khalifa’s mediocrity.) However, he failed to translate to the larger hip hop audience, and so he made a key pivot. His placements on Ariana Grande’s album as well as the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack last year were the linchpin. Anyone with a car radio knows what happened next.
Which brings us to Beauty Behind the Madness, the album which has assured Abel the success he so desires. From the first listen you’ll notice that for all the hype surrounding their collaboration, the Max Martin influence is rather restricted. Indeed, the album is primarily self-produced and self-written – whatever the product is, there’s no denying it’s what The Weeknd intended for us to receive. Much has been made of the improved songwriting, which I think underestimates the quality of his more unconventional earlier work. With less of the drug haze surrounding the original trilogy, his real emotions do come through more clearly. We hear a lot about his mother, who seems like just about every East African auntie I know – all she wants is for her son to settle down with a nice girl. We get the sense that she is the voice in the back of his head, and finally making her proud is the underlying reason behind his drive. As a friend pointed out, we get more insight into the anxieties that underlie his drug use, the demons he is fighting. The album is also perfectly sequenced, taking us from songs reminiscent of earlier work and earlier attitudes, through both an emotional and musical evolution. He is growing as a person, questioning his ways, but not entirely changing – “Acquainted”, one of the best tracks, does a wonderful job of depicting this. He’s starting to think and sing about women in a more complex way, which is more than welcome.
So that’s the good stuff. After at least a dozen listens, I’m still uneasy about this album, for a few different reasons. It seems like he’s playing a weird game here – he’s clearly trying to branch out, increase his fanbase, and that means that he’s going to have to make the way he talks about drugs and sex more accessible. (The suburbs wouldn’t be down with “Initiation”, for example.) While the old fans had to process and overlook certain things, these new fans are given more easily digestible material. However, he also seems wary of being criticized for doing this – “Tell Your Friends” seems made explicitly to address that fear. He tries too hard to show that he hasn’t changed. In the song, he actually sings, “Don’t believe the rumors, bitch, I’m still a user”, the type of straightforward claim he would never have made before. This kind of on-the-nose language creeps up a lot. What we could before sense in the warbles of his voice, he is spelling out in explicit terms. Although he’s letting us in, he’s telling us, rather than showing us, and this leads to awkward songwriting and unnatural phrasing.
Sonically, this is the most “pop” work he’s done, though I think The Weeknd, especially, forces us to have a discussion about the meaninglessness of that descriptor. While the Martin-influenced moments tend to work, the moments where Abel gives into rock sensibilities end up feeling false. He doesn’t yet know how to sing to that kind of music, and honestly probably shouldn’t try. “Dark Night”, with Ed Sheeran, is the perfect example of this – it doesn’t make sense for Abel musically or lyrically. Much has been made of his idolization of Michael Jackson, who truly transcended genres, but I’m not sure Abel is ready to do the same quite yet.
What I cherished the most about The Weeknd’s previous work is that it let you into a world that was completely foreign, and that was okay. He explicitly says, “This ain’t nothing to relate to, even if you try.” But that isn’t a winning pop formula. In the uncharacteristically numerous interviews he gave before the release of Beauty Behind the Madness, he makes it clear that he wants to please and he really wants the fame. That’s been the goal from damn near the beginning. This album is the album you make when you want that success. In order to achieve that, things had to change. (And just as I’ve thankfully moved on from college essays, everyone has to be allowed to grow.) But that also means that mistakes are made, and things become a little more generic, a little less exciting. The spark that made the Weeknd who he is is still there, but it’s in danger. Early on in the album, he sings, “We did it all alone, now we’re coming for the throne.” I just hope that in that quest he doesn’t get farther from what made me and so many others a fan in the first place. The real question is if that even matters.