Review Summary: MetamorphosisI'll be different
I think I'll be different
I hope I'm not different
And I hope you'll still listen
People change, for better or for worse. With change comes difficulties, it can be difficult to transition from A to B, some changes are gradual and some are abrupt. Change can be beautiful and it can be complicated, The Weeknd's story up to this point focuses heavily on change. Its been about him changing as a person; how he views himself, the world around him, his actions towards others (the countless women, the people he may have wronged). It goes further than that, to him as an artist, he has changed and he's hinted at that change for some time. When House of Balloons appeared, people were taken aback by the sound, atmosphere and content, in turn they were sucked into a filthy, seductive, hazy world. From that moment onwards The Weeknd had been born. After House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence soon followed, both continuing the narrative, the narrative of a broken, destructive young man living in the city of Toronto in search of his dream. Trilogy is a masterpiece, its a tale of growing and existing in a world that's so dark, so tempting yet it's grounded deep in reality, albeit sprinkled with a dash of exaggeration. The Weeknd is an extension of Abel Tesfaye, a character based on life experiences, a character that allows him to be something he isn't. People can identify with that, from teenagers to adults, people sometimes wish they were someone or something else, whether it's based on lack of self-esteem, confidence, achievements or simply a fantasy. Abel created a world, a person that was the epitome of being a self-destructive, primal, smooth sexual being. Someone who thrives on lust, someone who's cold and empty, searching to fill the void with a room full of women and a ridiculous amount of drugs. Not only that, it featured his struggle with his actions, his decisions, how his choices shaped him and the people around him and how it ultimately ended up hurting him as well as others.
When Trilogy ended everyone wondered what would come next, he hinted at changing as far back as Thursday, in Rolling Stone, alluding to changing, people still loving him and so forth. The bonus tracks of Trilogy also hinted at a different direction for the wounded deviant. His fans were unsettled and some were completely lacking in confidence with what he'd do next.
Gave away our days
For a little fame
Now I'll never see your face
But it's okay I adapted anyway
Adapting is difficult. When you're in a new environment, a place unfamiliar, you have to try to adapt to your surroundings. Once The Weeknd had grown in popularity, he left Toronto and toured most of the world. The life he had known, grown accustom to, had changed. Enter Kiss Land. His sophomore album which didn't have the desired effect he had hoped ("The underperforming of that record in his own expectations of what it was supposed to do shook him to his core"). While the body of work was heavily rooted in the dark world we'd been accustom to, such as the brooding soundscapes and personal, at times pervasive lyricism. Yet, the listening experience was a mixed one. Something was different. One of the more prominent changes was that the lyricism focused more on heartbreak and how it affected HIM, exposing a side to him that's generally uncharted territory, with sincerity and fear. The whole experience felt more human, it appeared that it was more the man, Abel Tesfaye singing and not his character. Kiss Land felt like the price he had paid for his hedonistic ways. It was a cinematic journey of how his life, and himself as a person had changed since Trilogy. Kiss Land wasn't what his fans wanted, and it received luke-warm reception from both fans and critics alike. If anything, looking back, that album in particular was Abel trying to move forward while still holding onto the past. Kiss Land was the embodiment of The Weeknd who first sung High for This, battling the desire to be bigger while staying true to his own musical world. It was The Weeknd who ended up singing the soaring radio-friendly chorus of Belong to the World, while still keeping his niche sound and penchant numbness.. It was clear throughout Kiss Land that something wasn't quite right. Especially considering the jarring juxtaposition of the title track and the rest of the album, it was a confusing experience for the listener and perhaps a difficult journey for the artist himself.
Sometime after Kiss Land's release, The Weeknd came back in full force, dropping some singles and a remix. The remix featured production of Doc Mckinney (a part of the Trilogy experience and sound), people rejoiced that he had seemingly gone back to where he belonged and began. To the dark headspace, in a city full of his darkest desires, where unhappiness was in abundance, in a world so familiar to him. Despite this, the two singles which were released (Often and King of the Fall) showed a continued departure of The Weeknd everyone knew and so desperately wanted. Gone were the moody, sultry beats, replaced with hard-hitting trap, booming bass lines. Gone were the heartfelt singing, the smooth vocals that would glide with damaged emotion effortlessly alongside the sonic display of pleasure and pain. The emotion and gentle nature of his voice was replaced with arrogance, a more aggressive approach, culminating in a borderline rap flow. Gone were the subtle, if at times obvious seductive lyricism, the torment, the sin and the vulnerability which was displayed in his writing. Being replaced with a more confident, fearless disposition of f*cking, making 'pussy rain' and making them 'swallow'. Again, the reactions were mixed, some were just glad there were some hints of the 'old' Weeknd again, even if it was rash and crude for the sake of being crude. Alongside the singles, came a rise in popularity due to the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The single Earned it created a platform for Abel to become who he always wanted to be. A superstar.
Now in the summer of 2015, The Weeknd's third album, Beauty Behind the Madness has arrived.
I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh
I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh
The Weeknd is no longer the man he once was. The rising star of 'Alt R 'n' B' has become a Pop artist, and that's fine. Why" Because he has managed to transition effortlessly this time around and it's clear within this body of work. With Beauty Behind the Madness, Abel seems confident with his abilities, he sounds comfortable with his choices, from his improved lyricism to experimenting with his sound, it doesn't feel fearful or awkward like Kiss Land did at times. From the beginning of the album, he asserts himself, and he continues to do so until the final track. He now knows who he is and what he is. His old sound his well and truly dead, it died a long time ago but it's been reborn. All is not lost, while there are Pop songs written purposefully for the radio and mainstream success (thanks Max Martin), there are also darker, more sexual songs which have the ingredients of his old sound while remaining a definitive example of who The Weeknd is now. 'Tell Your Friends', 'Often', 'The Hills', 'Acquainted' and 'Shameless' all feature the flickers, the past ingredients of old. 'Tell Your Friends' being the best example lyrically, featuring a claustrophobic drugged out sound. Whereas 'Acquainted' has a more typical Trilogy-esque vibe to it coupled with suave lyricism. Even the biggest Pop songs on the record, 'I Can't Feel My Face' and 'In the Night' have gritty subject matter, the former being about cocaine and the latter being about a stripper/prostitute, fitting subject matter for the Canadian, really. Moreover, both songs are well-written, they're fantastic Pop songs. They're unbelievably catchy and both have bombastic choruses. In the Night builds up and explodes in all its glory as Abel croons. Whereas 'I Can't Feel My Face' is a funky, dancefloor jam that makes you want to do a line of coke at a family function. While Abel may have changed direction artistically, he still writes songs with emotion and meaning, 'As You Are' is a haunting example of this. Beautiful vocal melodies swirl and rumble alongside the dream-like synths, it's slightly reminiscent of the HOB sound (Loft Music). The way he howls 'Baby won't you take me as I am"' accompanied with soul-shattering melodies in the background, feels like a flashback to 2011, back in the loft. Back at the place where you first discovered The Weeknd.
Beauty Behind the Madness feels extremely cohesive too, it flows along nicely and it never really slows down nor does it lose steam. It's a well-crafted body of work, from the sonics to subject. It never really feels jarring nor does it all blend together. The emotion is intact, the lust remains, as does the sprinkles of sensitivity and humanity of the world he lives in and what life brings him. If anything, the two weak spots on this album are the Ed Sheeran feature (Dark Times) and the closing track, 'Angel'. With 'Dark Times' it feels like a wasted opportunity, as well as feeling out-of-place, it doesn't feel like a Weeknd song (even with his new sound). It comes after 'As you Are' which is one of the strongest tracks and it pales in comparison. Instrumentally it's fine and that's the problem, it's fairly bland and pretty unspectacular. The lyrical content is again, fine though it doesn't sit well with what comes before and after it. Whereas 'Angel' feels like a very traditional Pop ballad, it doesn't have The Weeknd's flair. It's the only track where I'm still a bit unsure about my opinion. Vocally it's a strong track (it has a hidden feature), sonically it's powerful and moody in Top 40 sort of way. It has painfully obvious Pop sensibilities and the lyricism is a bit sugary sweet and soft compared to what we're used to. However, prior to that, is one of the best songs of this new era, 'Prisoner'. It's the definition of melancholy, the sample at the beginning sent shivers down my spine. Followed by the gradual slow melody as the piano builds before the chorus, which rises into a superb crescendo, a surging bass drop with soaring vocals. It's Abel at his best. It also has the best feature on the entire album, and to me, it rivals 'The Zone'. Lana Del Rey fits the down-beat atmosphere perfectly, with her solemn vocals and Weeknd-esque moans. It's everything you could want from a collaboration between these two. It's a dystopian four minutes, it's sombre, raw yet alluring.
Would you end your night with me
Don't you leave me all behind
Don't you leave my little life
Don't you leave my little lie
Beauty Behind the Madness represents the final stage of the change Abel Tesfaye is going through, The Weeknd that was born inside mystery has become a man with a face. It's a tale, a representation of change. One man's journey from being a broken person, burdened by his choices, searching for fame. He has become someone who is proud of who they are and what they've achieved, finally claiming fame in all his glory.
Those who miss the old Abel have to accept that we all change and sometimes, you just have to let go. Not only is his third effort a statement of change, it's also an excellent Pop album, which defies all preconceptions of where his sound was heading and the fear that accompanied it. Beauty Behind the Madness is exactly that, there is Beauty Behind his Madness. It's a human experience. It's flawed, real and it exists.
"I felt I had to change who I was." - Abel Tesfaye, New York Times 2015