The Weeknd
Beauty Behind the Madness


4.0
excellent

Review

by beachdude USER (36 Reviews)
August 28th, 2015 | 35 replies


Release Date: 2015 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Go tell your friends about it.

Some ascents to superstardom are both inevitable and obvious. Michael Jackson, for instance, was the absurdly gifted centerpiece of the Jackson 5 well before he had even hit puberty, so it came as a surprise to few when he blossomed into arguably the most universal pop star the world has ever seen. Despite his many musical eccentricities, the huge scope of Jackson’s talents was so readily apparent that he was able to bend the rules of popular music around him, rather than the other way around.

Abel Tesfaye’s rise is in many ways an inverse of Jackson’s. The singer better known as The Weeknd also grew up in a rough working-class household, where prospects for a better life seemed bleak. However, Tesfaye, the son of Ethiopian immigrants to Canada, had no childhood success to use as a meal ticket out of his dreary existence. He was stuck in perpetual stagnation, with no way out. In Jon Caramanica’s superb New York Times profile, Tesfaye describes how this hopelessness became a descent into a drugged-out stupor of despair, as he and his friends dropped out of high school and sustained themselves off of welfare checks and shoplifted food, getting high each night with whatever substances they could scrounge together money to afford. He had escaped one purgatory of stagnation to wade into another. When he finally began to put his musical gifts to use penning songs in between part-time shifts at American Apparel, this hazy existence informed everything he created. And as Tesfaye’s near-instantaneous breakthrough throughout 2011 attested, his tales of being young, aimless, horny and ***ed up struck a nerve with a far bigger audience than he could ever dream of from his Toronto haze. He was a cult sensation who was truly a product of his time - an underground star with millions of fans worldwide who had never had a major mainstream hit. And he didn’t need one. While his 2013 major label debut Kiss Land underperformed commercially, and was substantially less compelling than the mixtapes that preceded it, it only solidified his diehard “XO” fanbase, and allowed him to sell out shows around the world while having little mainstream presence outside of a few Drake features. However, mainstream success seemed just out of reach, and if he remained on his current path, there was nowhere to go but down. Tesfaye had appeared to have reached a peak, and it seemed that he was once again stagnant.

All of which makes The Weeknd’s ascent to the top of the pop world in less than a year all the more stunning. His dark, suffocating musical odes to debauchery seemed completely out of step with anything remotely radio-friendly, and the failure of any of Kiss Land’s singles to become hits was further proof. But on Beauty Behind the Madness, Tesfaye finally embraces the ethos of his biggest musical idol - Michael Jackson - and employs a widening of both his sonic palate and emotional range, with results that are frequently stunning and nearly always engaging. The centerpieces of this transformation are a pair of gleaming pop gems forged with the help of mainstream mastermind Max Martin - “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night”. These tracks - one of them currently topping the Hot 100 and the other a surefire future hit - find Tesfaye channeling his MJ influence most directly, with propulsive beats and memorable hooks. But he hasn’t forgotten that what made Jackson stand out wasn’t just catchy choruses and great dance moves… Jackson was a true pop outsider, unafraid to confront darker themes or hint at his inner turmoil. Both Martin-produced tracks keep this lesson front and center, as The Weeknd likens a burgeoning romance to cocaine addiction and croons of a girl who was victim of sexual abuse, and still carries emotional scars. Weighty stuff for Top 40, and yet it is exactly these unexpected moments of depth amidst the polished shine that make these still feel like songs by The Weeknd, and not just Abel Tesfaye, pop star.

But Tesfaye’s influences extend far past the King of Pop on a diverse, yet surprisingly cohesive body of work. The Kanye West-produced “Tell Your Friends” takes The Weeknd’s signature lyrical topics and adds some classic soul instrumentation and a dash of self awareness, to great effect, as Tesfaye sings a sort of mission statement for himself:

“I'm that nigga with the hair
Singing 'bout popping pills, ***ing bitches, living life so trill”

“Losers” features a classy, rich EDM beat and energizing horn bursts, “Acquainted” signals a shift from Tesfaye’s apathy into potential romantic feelings over production reminiscent of his original mixtapes, and “Shameless” is a haunting stripped-down ballad. Earlier hits “Often” and “Earned It” are thrown in for good measure, and fit in quite nicely, although somewhat unnecessarily. The album as a whole is a skillful balancing act between Tesfaye’s growing pop palate and his sinister R&B roots, with almost every track branching out into a new direction while still tying back into the overall aesthetic. This is exemplified in the guest spots, as Labrinth adds a distinctly gospel flair to his verse on “Losers”, while Lana Del Rey brings her signature pensive aura to “Prisoners”. However, nice guy Ed Sheeran attempts this balancing act and falls face-first, failing to sound even remotely convincing singing about blood on his pillow and a drinking habit on “Dark Times”, a song that sounds uncomfortably like, well… an Ed Sheeran song. However, the album closes on a high note with the grand, epic “Angel”. With instrumentation straight out of an ‘80s stadium rock power ballad, Tesfaye closes a narrative arc of sorts on the album about two lovers with emotional baggage, with each party going their separate ways in a heartbreaking farewell, accentuated by the inclusion of female vocalist Maty Noyes. It is a striking conclusion to one of the most ambitious, bleak, yet memorable pop albums in some time. Beauty Behind the Madness deftly navigates Abel Tesfaye’s growth as an artist and a man, while still leaving room for his signature darkness. None of the steps taken towards the mainstream feel like “sell-out” moves, and instead register as a man learning to step out of the shadows and embrace the superstardom he was always destined for, even if he (and his listeners) didn’t know it. Like the King of Pop in his prime, he’s already made great strides towards bending popular music to his will, and it’s thrilling to watch the rest of the pack scramble to keep up.



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user ratings (696)
3.2
good
other reviews of this album
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Comments:Add a Comment 
LotusFlower
August 28th 2015


12000 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

Accidentally bought a 5 dollar copy of this album on Bandcamp, not knowing someone just took a rip of it and was selling it without association to XO. Sorry abel

beachdude
August 28th 2015


849 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Check out the excellent New York Times feature I used for the basis of quite a bit of this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/magazine/can-the-weeknd-turn-himself-into-the-biggest-pop-star-in-the-world.html?_r=0



Also, try saying "mainstream mastermind Max Martin" five times fast.

ShitsofRain
August 28th 2015


8257 Comments


what is this shit

TooLateToGoBack
August 28th 2015


2106 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Def enjoyed this more than Kiss Land.

initforthelisten
August 28th 2015


44 Comments


Excellent review. I'll need to check this out. I loved House of Balloons and Echoes of Silence; Kiss Land bored me too much to ever give it a fair enough chance (as did Thursday, in fact). But liking the singles from this one.

ti0n
August 28th 2015


1772 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

utterly repetetive. that would be slightly ok if the lyrics or the hooks were memorable. but they aren't

ti0n
August 28th 2015


1772 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

are you joking? i'm having a hard time not to cringe during tell your friends

DropdeadWHA
August 28th 2015


1396 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Nice review!!

RivalSkoomaDealer
August 28th 2015


1645 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Tell Your Friends and Shameless were the best songs on here.

anarchistfish
August 28th 2015


30368 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0 | Sound Off

are we listening to the same album?



The Hills is the only great song

MMX
August 28th 2015


5020 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Needs to cut the filler songs and the addition of 4 songs on par with The Hills

LotusFlower
August 28th 2015


12000 Comments

Album Rating: 2.0

Abel sounds so bored on this album

alienobserver
August 28th 2015


4499 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0

go tell your friends aboouutt it

Pangea
August 28th 2015


10564 Comments


Can't wait to listen. Can't Feel My Face is one my favs of the year

PappyMason
August 28th 2015


5702 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I really liked the discussion on Tesfaye's early life in the beginning of your review. That flowed really nice.





All of which makes The Weeknd’s ascent to the top of the pop world in less than a year all the more stunning.



Well, this had a lot to do with 'Earned It', the lead single from 50 Shades of Grey. Make of that what you will...

beachdude
August 28th 2015


849 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

@PappyMason Thanks! I definitely agree that good placements for his new material (the Ariana Grande duet & 50 Shades of Grey) helped him substantially, but he still pulled off the transition from indie favorite to pop star really, really well imo

Gyromania
August 28th 2015


37192 Comments


more curious to try this now that i've read this.

interesting to see a review favoring it so much considering the mixed reception. good work.

MikeC26
August 28th 2015


3381 Comments


Every song sounds the same.

alienobserver
August 28th 2015


4499 Comments

Album Rating: 1.0

i love the little guitar effects like the blaring in real life and tell your friends and shameless

wtferrothorn
August 28th 2015


5849 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Just finished my 1st listen. Pretty ehhhh, but Can't Feel My Face is a fucking jam.



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