The Weeknd’s ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’: Album Review

Carl Williott | August 28, 2015 6:51 am
The Weeknd's "Tell Your Friends" Video
The Weeknd dances on his own grave.

Big pop moves are easy to botch. For every 1989, there are countless debacles like Garth BrooksChris Gaines or Weezer‘s Raditude. The decision to gloss up in search of Top 40’s greener pastures may not be the bold career choice it was back when U2 embarked upon their Pop era, but fail at it today and you still end up looking like a delusional tryhard (see: Twin Shadow‘s strained Eclipse). With Beauty Behind The Madness (out ), The Weeknd is the latest artist to make a shameless pop grab. And no matter how improbable and imperfect the end product is, it’s undoubtedly impressive.

When he emerged in 2011 as an anonymous online mysterion with an appetite for destruction, Abel Tesfaye injected a narcotized stagger into R&B that reshaped the genre. After releasing three mixtapes, his proper commercial debut, Kiss Land, further suggested he was uninterested in appealing to the soccer mom set. Then, out of nowhere he struck chart gold with an Ariana Grande collab and a Fifty Shades of Grey hit, and decided to hire Sweden’s most effective pop mercenary. The soccer mom set had suddenly become his target demo.

But the most unexpected part of the tale is that BBTM hinges on a love story. The man who spent the first part of his career glamorizing damaged hedonism spends much of this album singing about the unglamorous world of cuffing. The narrative arc starts with his origin story: He peels back the curtain on his rise on the Kanye West-produced “Tell Your Friends,” then “The Hills” and “Often” show up to prove the mixtape creep is still intact. But he meets a woman on “Acquainted,” and she inspires the warm rush of new love that is “Can’t Feel My Face.” Relationship dramas play out for the rest of the album, until the couple splits and Tesfaye earnestly hopes she finds someone to love.

This metamorphosis feels honest. You get the sense The Weeknd truly wanted his persona to evolve. That same instinct led him to adapt his sound, knowing those alluring grays of his earlier work were starting to go gray. The result is an album of polished studio pop with a money-is-no-issue-and-labels-are-invincible ’80s grandeur. Opener “Real Life” is blockbuster pop peacocking, some mammoth Michael JacksonYeezus hybrid. “Losers” builds into a brassed-out street carnival. The Max Martin-produced “In The Night,” with a bass line that will possess you and a “Billie Jean”-adjacent theme, is even more of a blatant MJ re-creation than “Can’t Feel My Face.” “Prisoner” wraps the doomed depressives Tesfaye and Lana Del Rey in an electro-dirge. Shlocky power ballad “Angel” closes out the album in incredibly uncool fashion — we’re talking horns and singing kids — and yet it’s utterly effective.

Listeners might attribute this hugeness to Martin’s Midas touch, but he actually only had a hand in three tracks — so it’s more a testament to how much Tesfaye and his frequent collaborator Illangelo have grown as songwriters and producers (Abel had a hand in writing every BBTM track and contributed production to a majority of them). But when you’re swinging for the fences, you miss big. The Ed Sheeran-assisted groaner “Dark Times” feels like one of those ideas that seems genius when you’re drunk but loses its luster when you sober up, because it is literally that. The trappy “Acquainted” would be the most generic Weeknd song ever if not for the stale, acoustic guitar-driven “Shameless.” Even with synth-guitar shredding to bring it home, “Shameless” proves all that Max Martin touches is not gold. Still, the weak songs don’t feel like complete throwaways because the loose narrative structure gives them a stake in the bigger picture.

The repeated King of Pop worship also serves as a sort of aural congealing agent to keep everything from feeling scattered. By leaning on this exaggerated vision of MJ-inspired ’80s pop, Beauty Behind The Madness parallels Carly Rae Jepsen‘s E·MO·TION in that they both largely sidestep the current pop landscape. Whereas Jepsen hired a crack team of producers in order to retreat from big pop and make critic-pop, Tesfaye did the opposite, hiring a crack team of producers to retreat from crit-pop and make big pop. Both albums sound the way we think we remember Top 40 sounding when we were growing up.

That type of vision and instinct and execution can’t be taught or faked, no matter how many Swedish hired hands you bring in. And it proves The Weeknd belongs to the pop world.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Carl Williott