With the release of The Weeknd’s third studio album, ‘Starboy’ edging closer, we revisit his most recent project, ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’. Check out the review below:
Despite the rumours of Abel Tesfaye, better known as ‘The Weeknd’, leaving his dark roots behind to become more mainstream in his music, I was not apprehensive when coming to a decision of whether or not to purchase his new album, ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ (BBTM). When I am a fan of an artist, I feel that it I must support them. And I truly support The Weeknd. He is one of the few artists whose products I would pay for despite having a Spotify account. But why? Why the clamour around this particular artist?
Well, The Weeknd has consistently put out phenomenal music over the past five years, ever since releasing his first mixtape in the ‘Trilogy’ series, ‘House of Balloons’. His individuality, incomparable take on R&B, and mysterious aura led to a core, cult-like following, (myself being included as one of those fans), who have stayed loyal from the offset. From the final two chapters of ‘Trilogy’, ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’, to the very underrated debut album, ‘Kiss Land’, The Weeknd has not faltered in giving his fans brilliant music.
He maintained his high standard in the build up to his next album as he dropped fantastic singles in the form of ‘Often’, ‘The Hills’, ‘Earned It’, ‘Where You Belong’ and ‘King of the Fall’, the latter unfortunately being left off BBTM. Each song was excellent, and therefore made my decision to purchase the album a simple one. On listening several times, I am glad that I chose to do so. Even though the darker subject matter from previous work had transformed to a lighter form of R&B, the sinister undertones Weeknd fans are used to still remained, now intertwined with a more pop surface.
A rock influence is heard almost immediately on the opening track, ‘Real Life’. Like ‘The Hills’, the introduction intends to shock, and wake up the listener instantly, not that it’s needed given the adrenaline rush associated with listening to a new project by The Weeknd. Upbeat melodies would give the veneer of a positive message being conveyed by Abel. However, for those listening closely to the lyrics, we instantly find out about his destructive relationship with the opposite sex. Fans of the Weeknd since ‘Trilogy’ would appreciate the consistency in his view of love.
‘Losers’ featuring Labrinth, starts off slow, but the transition in speed is almost ominous and you anticipate that something special is going to occur. Lo and behold, when Abel Tesfaye strikes that final note before the initial drop, with an uncanny resemblance to Michael Jackson, Labrinth’s genius as a producer hits you like a tsunami. The powerful, keyboard synth chords are like waves that you cannot prevent from absolutely overwhelming you. ‘Losers’ should really be Labrinth featuring The Weeknd, such is the brilliance of the instrumental. I look forward to those two working with each other in the future.
Speaking of working with each other, the second artiste The Weeknd chose to work with was Kanye West. His production takes a heavy sample from Soul Dog’s ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’, but this song is incredible for many reasons. Firstly, Abel rides the beat almost to perfection. It is a cool song, and he sounds so damn cool over it. Listen to the lyrics. His arrogance is exactly what you want to hear. This is a man, with potentially the greatest voice in music today, a creator of some of the most original art in the world, and his success with females precedes him. He has a right to be arrogant and he conveys it on this track. The high note at the end of the final chorus is probably my highlight of the album, and makes you understand why females flock to him.
‘Often’. To put this 2014 fan favourite on the album was an absolute genius move. Once again, his lyrics, which describe his ease in picking up females, blend together with the beat to perfection. Sampling ‘Ben Sana Vurgunum’, a 1970s Turkish song by Nükhet Duru, indicates how diverse his musical influences are. ‘Often’ is a track that breaks down The Weeknd’s newly constructed pop shell to reveal the artist that gave us songs such as ‘Wicked Games’ and ‘Loft Music’. Track positioning is important to me, and to place this directly after ‘Tell Your Friends’ is clever on his part, as he maintains the character of a braggadocious, ‘Casanova’.
‘The Hills’ actually grew on me, maybe because I was not used to the distortion in his voice near the beginning of the track, or how aggressively it starts. However, after a few listens, I began to appreciate the song. It almost seems as if Abel Tesfaye is exhausted in his verses, but musters up enough energy to release his frustrations during the chorus in a vulnerable confession of how he treats the subject of the song. The bridge before the final chorus, is performed to lull the listener into a false sense of security before he unleashes the hook one final time.
‘Acquainted’ softens the vibe a bit from ‘The Hills’. This is one of the songs, which is more aligned to love, and how the young Canadian-Ethiopian, is falling for a female, rather than the other way around. But he doesn’t go too far, and always maintains that distance, characteristic of the song title. The outro initially had me skeptical; it’s almost like a throwback to ‘Trilogy’ where he’d have two songs combined in one, with the latter half being a somewhat trippy and haunting experience. This one was however shortened, alluding to the risqué behavior of ‘girls born in the 90s’.
‘Acquainted’’s outro, blends into the intro for ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, which was the perfect song for The Weeknd to gain mainstream success. He goes full MJ in both song and video, providing the ultimate throwback for all sets of fans, and garners the desired recognition as his protégé. This is definitely one of the first times he has produced a solo effort capable of connecting to wider audience.
My interpretation of the next track, ‘Shameless’, is that The Weeknd is the drug, and this girl is the addict. Or more so addicted to what he can do for her. His love and presence is what has her hooked, or maybe it’s the way he delivers his love to her. Either way, she is infatuated, and he doesn’t let her forget that, with constant affirmations over gorgeous acoustics reinforced by the heartbeat of the drum patterns.
The message in ‘Shameless’ draws parallels to that of ‘Earned It’, however the tone is very different in this track. If the instrumental was to play alone, I could almost imagine sixty year olds ballroom dancing in a building reminiscent of Royal Albert Hall. However, for those who have seen the video, his crooning links back to his desire for a lustful experience.
‘In The Night’, again has Michael Jackson vibes, but this is the one track in the album I am hesitant on. It just doesn’t scream of The Weeknd to me, however, if the plan was to create a catchy song to appeal to all generations, he has executed the plan to perfection. Or does he? Don’t be distracted by the eighties disco imagery conveyed by the melody of the song (like I was), and listen carefully to what the man is saying. Maybe a wounded woman who’s relief for the pain is to dance for dollar bills, is not entirely appropriate subject matter for young kids. Then again maybe it wasn’t targeted at all age groups…
The beginning of ‘As You Are’ eerily reminds me of the Toto Africa sample used by various artists (Jojo – ‘Anything’, Wiz Khalifa – ‘Huey Newton’). The first half of the song, is vintage Weeknd. He, a damaged soul, yearns for another damaged soul, despite the pain they may inflict on one another. It’s almost as if he believes that both their broken hearts, can seamlessly fit together to produce a fully functional organ, no longer subject to suffering. The second half, like ‘Acquainted’, ‘Party & the Party After Next’, and ‘Loft Music’, gives the listener the experience of floating in purgatory before entering the next track. It’s almost as if we’ve skipped forward past the broken relationship, to the stage where his lover no longer wants to accept The Weeknd for who he is. Has she changed, and now believes she can find better? Or maybe she is fed up with the self-destructive cycle, and needs to escape before it is too late. Abel pleads, begs her initially, but almost in a response to her justification, he repeats the same lyrics prior to the final chorus in ‘The Hills’: “who are you to judge?” Whether or not it alludes to the fiery fifth track, it certainly serves as a reminder to it.
The guitar riff in ‘Dark Times’ is something out of a classic western. Fitting then, that the song revolves around the violent anti-heroes that both Abel and Ed Sheeran embody, coming home to their women, bloodied and bruised. Ed Sheeran plays his part to perfection, a man with an evidently tough exterior, shaped by a rough environment, but loved by his female counterpart. The pre-chorus leads Sheeran to emerge from his steely front, his voice full of a sad anger, as he warns her off in a crescendo leading up to the hook. The chorus is forceful, reiterating to whoever is besotted by them to stay clear. The Weeknd’s content is no different, but both his, and Sheeran’s unique voices complement each other, finding common ground as they are both laced with the necessary harshness to tell this story.
‘Prisoner’ is definitely one of the best tracks on the album. Following the Ed Sheeran collaboration, he joins another acclaimed artist in producing what is surely going to be the equivalent of a ‘cult classic’ in the music world. The shrill, haunting sample used in ‘Prisoner’, already leads you to envisage a helpless girl locked away, fighting to free herself from the chains with the first wail, but followed by a whimper in acceptance of her fate. The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey are both imprisoned by the mental confines of an addiction, but the big question is, what is the drug? Love through the more carnal experience with another being, or the high associated with the adoration from their ever-growing global audience? Whichever one it is, the artists’ masterful delivery is matched by the stirring production, with a perfectly placed bassline, that reverberates through your body.
The perfect ending to an almost perfect album, ‘Angel’ closes out the show, in almost theatrical fashion. There is a feeling of melancholy to the introductory humming of the angels, but it is in almost inviting tone to The Weeknd’s lover. Every “oh oh oh oh” is emphasised with a synchronised drum pattern, once again for dramatic effect. Abel is now releasing her from himself, and effectively from her pain, and whilst he’ll always be there for her, he hopes she can find someone who is better for her. The lyrics of the chorus are reminiscent of classic slow songs, and to an extent unoriginal, however he still finds a way to make it authentic. One of the most talked about features on the album, is that of the ‘Angel’, ‘Maty Noyes’. I was surprised to not only hear her voice, but also by its quality and suitability to the final verse. It is a subtle yet significant addition to a fantastic, finale.
In today’s saturated music market, fans are crying out for something original, and a product that goes against the trend. For the past 6 years, The Weeknd has obliged, with a flawless singing ability utilised to tell the world about the warped reality that he lives in. In past projects, many can argue that he glorifies the seedy underworld of drugs, strip clubs and casual sex. At the same time, this is entertainment, and personally I cannot fault the manner in which he entertains. His encounters seem truthful and genuine. He gives a human presence to those involved in dehumanized professions. On a musical level, his voice is unique and carries a versatility, which enables him to create a wide array of songs. And he is most definitely not afraid to push the boundaries, which enclose him within this ‘dark, alternative R&B’ category.
At the risk of alienating fans, he has produced an album that most definitely moves in a different direction to his past projects, but at the same time he manages to remain true to himself. It’s the reason why lifelong fans like myself, love the album so much. He still sings about the same subject matter, but now he almost hides his intentions with a mirage of upbeat melodies. It is more diverse than his past projects, but his choice to, will endear him to new fans, who have never experienced his previous works of art, and also old fans who maybe wanted to see if he could walk down a different avenue and still find success.
In the age where music is essentially free via many mediums, his strong album sales serve as a measure to the popularity of his album. And these sales numbers do not come as a surprise to me. The production is phenomenal on the album, and the producers clearly excel in their craft. The featuring artists have been chosen for their intrinsic value as an artist rather than just how much weight their name holds in the entertainment industry. And of course, the main attraction that is The Weeknd delivers each song in sublime fashion. He is the perfect example of where talent meets work ethic, and passion combines with a lifelong purpose to create something beautiful, which will last for generations to come. I draw parallels to the album from a quote by spoken word artist, Amir Sulaiman, ‘even the beauty of birth leaves its own scars’. The Weeknd has borne his ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, but in his case it his scars that make the content of project, not the other way round. He is not afraid to show a mainstream audience what has made him, and the life he leads. All I can do is thank him for sharing his work, and I look forward to the next masterpiece that he releases.