Release Date: August 26, 2015
Label: Republic Records/XO
“I’m the nigga with the hair / Singin’ ’bout / Poppin’ pills / F–kin’ bitches / Livin’ life so trill.” So sings Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the dreadlock-pompadour’d, perpetually blue-balled and lovelorn singer the Weeknd, on the Kanye West-produced “Tell Your Friends,” backed by loose-limbed jazz pianos from peak-College Dropout or Late Registration. With such astute lyrics — perhaps his most self-aware to date — the bedroom-weary 25-year-old can’t be accused of not knowing his audience, which on his last tour comprised a theater full of 18-year-olds with XO tattoos and their chaperones gleefully watching him project NSFW film clips of the aforementioned activities. On Beauty Behind the Madness, his fifth full-length release (but only his second studio album), he’s also got an idea of his best future self, whom he thinks can be this generation’s Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston.
Tesfaye would appear to know who he is and what he needs so well, in fact, that he threw out all the material brought to him by producer Max Martin, whose Top 40 song skeletons have resuscitated careers that didn’t even know they were in need of saving. “Martin’s team presented Tesfaye with a selection of prewritten material, and he rejected it all,” wrote Jon Caramanica in a rare, intimate interview with Tesfaye for the New York Times. “They worked from scratch instead.”
A wise move for someone who glorifies bad decisions: His self-released 2011 mixtape trilogy (House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence) of twists and turns down a lube-greased rabbit hole worked to cement a relatively new genre — dubiously christened “PBR&B” — and he, the permanently unhappy, luscious-voiced king of it. Even though his 2013 major-label debut, Kiss Land, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, his first studio LP was tepid by comparison; two years later, it’s hard to conjure anything except a vague aural hallucination, like brownout flashbacks of doing body shots at a dive bar. His early, digital-only collections also got an official release as the budget-priced Trilogy, introducing his sexy, narcotized lullabies to co-eds who would later tweet him selfies.
In 2014, he crooned his way into the public consciousness yet again: first with his taunting Ariana Grande duet “Love Me Harder,” a headboard-pounding jam that made for an inadvertent call-and-response with his next single, the unexpectedly conciliatory — even, perish the thought, kinda romantic — contribution to the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, “Earned It.” In a six-month span, both of those chart-climbing songs did what House of Balloons had done in a single sweep: established fairly high expectations for what Tesfaye would put out next.
What was next was “Can’t Feel My Face,” which leaked just after Memorial Day of this year (though technically he teased “The Hills” at South By Southwest a few months earlier). OMI’s G-rated “Cheerleader” scored the coveted Song of the Summer designation, but “Face” is without question one of the best songs of the year. The Weeknd’s popped-and-locked gasps, claps, and roughly strummed, almost raw bass line takes to task the previously insurmountable legacy of his idol, Michael Jackson, even moreso than Tesfaye’s on-the-nose cover of “Dirty Diana.” And then, all of that forgotten in an instant, as his voice climaxes in the build’s sneeze-like alo-ho-ho-hooo!
Spoiler alert: There is nothing as good as “Can’t Feel My Face” on Beauty Behind the Madness, but there are a few other truly great songs, many of which acknowledge how far he’s come in spite — or perhaps because — of his unapologetic #badboy status. “Baby, I’ve been destined to end up in this place,” he sings on the Lana Del Rey duet “Prisoner,” what should have been the album closer, blooming dark and sticky like spilled codeine over piercing snares. Gangster Nancy Sinatra might be his perfect partner, actually, with her feathery, nicotine-lipped croon and penchant for men that aren’t good for her. As for his other guests, well — he does what he can with Ed Sheeran, his polar opposite in every way (let’s just say certain un-sexy behavior might not fly at one of Tesfaye’s molly orgies) except perhaps technical proficiency, on the bluesy, mostly forgettable “Dark Times.”
Beauty Behind the Madness is front-loaded with fresh directions for the Weeknd that achieve the impossible: make it sound like he’s actually enjoying himself. “Losers” features Simon Cowell-endosed U.K. producer Labrinth, who kicks aside empty bottles of XO, throws out the roaches and empty pill bottles, and rips open the dusty hotel curtains to let in the street cacophony of real-live horns and brushed drums. Such un-sampled brass and jazz inflections are unheard of for a Weeknd record and, arguably, on the pop charts, except for those on To Pimp a Butterfly.
“Shameless” lingers at the opposite end of the spectrum of possibilities — it’s an acoustic red herring, with just a guitar that erupts, suddenly and indeed shamelessly, into a raging electric solo. It’s Tesfaye at his most knee-scraping confessional, a good look for a former lurker who’d have fewer reservations than, say, Sheeran, about having his way with a girl who might not be in the right frame of mind to know better. Despite all this new emotion and production, some of his efforts unavoidably slouch back towards his first releases. Phoned-in from the Weeknd’s former self, with distorted cries like strangled little deaths, references to “pussy-poppin'” (are those ever doing anything else around him?) and rattling trap beats, “Often” is just as much of a guilty pleasure as anything from Thursday. He cultivates a similarly late-night lustful vibe on the harp-strewn “Acquainted,” about his girl getting to know… herself, actually.
“In the Night” comes the closest to the wall-scaling studio and automobile airwave euphoria of “Can’t Feel My Face,” ratcheting up to background synths on the scope of ’80s spectacles like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The real star here is, as usual, his voice, tapping at the uppermost fragile glass of his register without quite breaking it. Getting close to M.J.’s level may require Herculean feats not even Max Martin can studio-magic his way into being; as evidenced by the Weeknd’s rise to power via mixtapes, and his album leak, the music industry is a far different place now that can no longer yield the world-dominating ubiquity of Thriller. If (and when) it does happen, the world tours and first-class flights and harder-to-score controlled substances may take more time than his ego can stomach, but behind Beauty Behind the Madness’ unevenness — “As You Are” is so quiet it sounds almost poorly mixed, as he limply wisps about his broken heart — is a sign of even greater things to, well, cum.