The increasing popularity of Neo Soul and Hipster Hop R&B artist Abel Tesfaye, or The Weeknd, is more than understandable. With lyrics that occasionally push for fragments of social conscience and break out of the confinement of the rote love and sex ballads which dominate so many entries in the genre he has touches of Marvin Gaye in some of his more somber content and a voice that, when he hits certain notes, uncannily resembles Michael Jackson. With the 1980’s dance influenced funk which ebbs and flows throughout his August 28th of 2015 released second studio album, The Beauty Behind the Madness, it only makes the aforementioned parallel all the more evident. Tesfaye is a vocally astonishing talent and he proves it in nearly every one of The Weeknd’s fourteen tracks.
The comparison to Jackson can most readily be seen in the album opener, “Real Life”. Though it ultimately seems minor when compared to the far more beautifully produced and impactful twelfth tune, the Ben Billions and Illangelo manufactured and Ed Sheeran showcased LP highlight, “Dark Times”, “Real Life” immediately grips your ears with varied notes of powerful instrumentation, a stirring and appropriate prelude to what courses throughout the three minute and forty-four second tune’s ear-pleasing rollercoaster ride of 80’s style Pop music which would’ve been perfectly fitting for Jackson himself. It would be most suitably a musical piece resembling a tune from Jackson’s Thriller from 1983 or 1987’s Bad. The twenty-five year old Ontario native, Tesfaye, speaks of his mother’s warnings about the effects of love near the commencement of the song which declares, “Mama called me ‘Destructive’, oh yeah/ Said it would ruin me one day, yeah/ Cause every woman that loved me, yeah/ I seemed to push her away.” This is punctuated by the song’s effective refrain, which plays with the same idea. When accompanied by Tesfaye’s poignant vocal delivery this makes for a multi-layered, beautiful song which harps back to the feel of a Jackson tune wonderfully.
The dance vibe may be more conventional in the tenth track, “In the Night”, but it is equally mood setting, and it only continues the Jackson comparison. The Max Martin and The Weeknd produced opus is an infectious narrative that hints, much in the vein of similar chart-smashers from three decades ago, at more than it actually states as it tells. Conveying the all too familiar tale of a woman who ‘hears him calling”, as the effectively vague and abstract because of such a factor chorus informs us, as she leaves her turbulent relationship to party her worries away, it is hard to tell off-hand if Tesfaye is egotistically speaking of himself, the music she seeks to relieve her worries when she forgets her troubles or the drugs it explicitly mentions she is trying to depart from. It may be all three. Either way, this is one turn when Tesfaye smartly creates a coyness to his lyrics which makes this conventional, in theory, ditty more abstract than it’s by the numbers tale would ever have it be otherwise. This is especially true when placed alongside the more modern in sound and blatantly explicit album highlight, “Often”, which leaves nothing to the mind in its brutally open frankness of sexuality.
It is this bridge between the old and the new school which makes Tesfaye’s music so much more gripping than it should be. The six and a half minute late album power ballad, “As You Are”, the smash-hit “Earned It”, “Shameless”, the deeply felt Lana Del Rey featured “Prisoner” and the sixth track, “Acquainted”, prove that Tesfaye can often marry the outdated shyness of an old-fashioned love song with touches of the more honest descriptions of a contemporary track of such a nature. “Acquainted”, “Shameless” and “Prisoner” are almost interchangeable, as it describes the clichéd beyond redemption in its tepid ‘prionser of love’ concept, as described blatantly in the lastly mentioned jingle. It is no wonder that the guilty pleasure that is the Fifty Shades of Grey Soundtrack chart-topper “Earned It”, which deserved a far better fate than being forever attached to the worst film of 2015, comes right after “Shameless” on the track list as they are essentially the same song thematically with differing perspectives. Regardless, all five songs always feel fresh, vibrant, sultry and genuinely smooth because of Tesfaye’s always listenable vocals. This is even when part of our mind calls out that what we are hearing is far from ground-breaking, he is often confined to the romantic angles of the R&B genre and we never hear anything recycled from any given song with similar musical stylings, but it works as enjoyable mood music nonetheless.
The only moments when The Weeknd disappoints is in the hackneyed single, and fifth track, “The Hills”, and in the Labrinth featured second track, “Losers”. With a laughable bridge that states, “The hills have eyes”, we are instantly bombarded by memories of the recently deceased horror master Wes Craven and his classic 1977 film that shares the name of this line, and the surprisingly solid 2006 Alexandre Aja directed remake, in “The Hills” and the sense of nostalgia it gives us than anything remotely resembling the drunken sounding tone he enacts through much of this rambling ‘player looking for a booty call’ style opus. The first verse alone, along with Illangelo and Mano’s uninspired and bland sound construction on the track, showcase the desperation spilling from the tone, the unusually laughable and lame lyrics in both of the above mentioned tunes and the concepts themselves. This is further exemplified in “Losers” with the juvenile line which starts each of its two verses, “Only losers go to school”, and the confused way it tries to tie in the potentially profound idea, but whiny and cringe-worthy here, of school education versus “Knowing what the heart wants”. It is of the few instances when The Beauty Behind the Madness feels forced and that Tesfaye is reaching towards its growing audience for a fast food style hit.
By the time the satisfactory, but comparatively garden variety, “Angel”, the final tune, comes and seems to vaguely expand upon many of the maternal and romantic angles set-up in the opener, “Real Life”, we have noticed that much of Tesfaye’s music has a distinct pattern it refuses to waver from. The ballads all seem to reformulate much of the instrumentation in various ways, with large degrees of success, the dance songs such as the wonderful and alive continuation of the 80’s funk groove found within, “Can’t Feel my Face”, and the gorgeous piano driven melody of the equally animated Kanye West co-produced single, “Tell your Friends”, touch on his modern and classical influences with precision.
Though he rotates between these formulas and that there is nothing as poetic as the seven minute and twenty six second final track, “Tears in the Rain”, from his 2013 debut album Kiss Land, The Beauty Behind the Madness is still an admirable, multi-layered work that should provide a bit of everything for most R&B fans. In a musical landscape where auto-tune is believed to be the answer to everything, Tesfaye’s exceptional singing skills are all the more worthy of our appreciation, as is going the album’s entire sixty-five minute span without a touch of this song quality lousing element heard. This act makes The Beauty Behind the Madness an often elegant, ominous and boldly passionate musical statement that can be perceived as an album length struggle to resist love, based on the warning given by his mother in “Real Life”, and Tesfaye’s ultimate ability to clutch it with open arms in the six minutes and seventeen seconds which make up “Angel”. As the title suggests, The Beauty Behind the Madness is also about the masks we wear to hide who we are in relationships, Tesfaye’s own emotional disguises are often hinted at or declared outright throughout the album, and it allows us to look beyond the obvious restraints and the occasionally exasperated impression left by “The Hills” or “Losers” and see The Weend’s latest as the gargantuan artistic statement, made all the more brash from obviously pulling from so many musical time periods and sources, that it ultimately becomes as one song gives way to the next.
With The Beauty Behind the Madness Tesfaye has created, not only one of the most inspired and inventively driven, but one of the best albums of its type of the year.