The Weeknd is an artist who recently forced himself back onto my radar. I enjoyed House Of Balloons but the two subsequent mixtapes which made up Trilogy were, I felt, monotonous and overwrought, while his second album, Kiss Land lacked any truly memorable tunes. Admittedly, I wrote him off as a one trick pony, a fad for moody teenaged girls – that is until I heard the promo material from Beauty Behind The Madness and thought it might be worth a listen after all. In particular, Earned It from the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack lifts Tesfaye’s vocals out of the murky production of his earlier work and adds in seductive strings and piano accompaniment. And then there was Can’t Feel My Face. Funky is definitely a first for The Weeknd, but he pulls it off with aplomb in the infectious chorus of this number 1 hit. However, the darker Often and The Hills were more of a throwback to his mixtape days, so it seemed anyone’s guess what direction the rest of the album would take.
The truth is even Abel doesn’t seem to really know the answer to this. The gist of this confusion is summed up in the third track Tell Your Friends. Kanye West lays down a great retro soul instrumental, but The Weeknd does nothing to adapt his vocal style or lyrics accordingly. The result is discordancy between a new, bold production and Tesfaye whimpering about “popping pills” and “fucking bitches” – the same tired lyrical tropes from his previous material. The Weeknd frustrates again in opener Real Life; the verses are exciting and seem to be building up to a big chorus, but instead there is no pay off and the song disappointingly slows in a damp squib of a refrain. I enjoyed the beat and melody on Often but it’s hard to listen to Tesfaye spout lines like “Baby I can make that pussy rain” without the slightest hint of irony – cringe-worthy even by his sleazy standards. The repetitive and crude nature of the lyrics is something that becomes increasingly tiring, especially in the first half of the album. I never forgave The Hills for nearly blowing my speakers with its initial bass blast, and the production of this track swamps the vocals in too much bass and distortion to be pleasing on the ear.
On the plus side, the collaborations on this album are pretty spot-on. Tesfaye gels well with Labyrinth on Losers, which is led by a great jazzy piano line with clapped percussion on the verses before a dramatic bridge leads into brass on the outro. The Weeknd throws everything at this track in terms of production, and it’s nice to hear him explore his break onto the music scene as opposed to the usual seedy lyrics. Dark Times is another album highlight – Ed Sheeran’s vocals complement Tesfaye’s to the point where it often sounds like they’re riffing off each other. All in all it’s a perfect marriage of their respective styles. Finally there’s the Lana Del Rey collaboration, Prisoner, which, while in terms of song structure feels a bit incoherent, thematically is a match made in heaven; a recurring theme of The Weeknd’s music has been a girl who is enticed by him into the world of sex and drugs, while Lana Del Rey, through her music, has often portrayed the girl who is misused by men. Elsewhere the guitar ballad Shameless is another departure from Tesfaye’s usual sound and it works well – even the guitar solo towards the end doesn’t sound out of place, partly because the vocals here have more substance than usual.
Beauty Behind The Madness is a classic album of an artist in transition. The Weeknd takes some major steps to broaden his influences and sound, but the songwriter needs to stop worrying about displeasing fans of his early mixtapes when it comes to lyrical content. The repetitive motifs of “bitches and drugs” quickly grow tired on this album. That said, both the strong collaborations on here and the hit singles signal an artist on the way to greatness. Here’s to hoping that he fully embraces the change for his next release.