Some artists pinpoint their winning formula on the first try. Mumford & Sons may be world-conquering, but no one can say with a straight face they have the most diverse catalogue.
The Weeknd, conversely, has been at the other end of the spectrum – hardly able to sit still since his trio of mixtapes were critically acclaimed, but yet to feel satisfied with a body of work that can be recreated down the line.
No one likes it when artists release the same album over and over (unless their name is AC/DC), so on that basis The Weeknd’s inability to stick to one sound keeps things fresh. His mixtape debuts of House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence are all part of the same narrative. Thursday’s ‘The Birds Part 1’ could have been on either of the other two and not felt jarring or out of place. The Trilogy as it is now referred to existed within a certain universe, and acts as his first phase.
Back then, there was scant info about who or what The Weeknd is. No one knew his name was Abel Tesfaye, and the only images of him were purposefully shrouded with fog. That anonymity was part of the appeal. His disturbing lyrics on Trilogy, filled with drug binges and questionable sex practices, were the words of someone taking our hand who we did not know.
The amount of interviews Tesfaye has been involved in can be counted on one hand. In his very first, he said this “shit is WWE.” This slight, and admittedly vague, admission of fiction makes Trilogy more inviting retrospectively. It drips with sex appeal and fantasies of vice and excess. Your consent is that you choose to listen, even if ‘Initiation’ is still a bit too terrifying.
But the second phase of Kiss Land did not achieve what The Weeknd is capable of. It debuted at number 2, with sales of over 200,000, but for someone selling out the O2 Arena on word of mouth, his lack of actual hits became noteworthy. ‘Wicked Games’ from House of Balloons will be a live staple for years to come, but its 4am feel and depressing lyrics mean it was never destined for platinum status. Kiss Land had some excellent tracks, but it was stuck between the mood of Trilogy and the radio. ‘Wanderlust’ could be a club anthem, but it comes a mere number of tracks after the pleading and borderline pathetic ‘Echoes of Silence’ in his chronology – why are we suddenly expected to dance when he was just telling us “don’t you leave my little life”?
So Tesfaye is out in the open, but continuing with the debauchery. Kiss Land‘s title track has a pornographic video and lyrics like “you can meet me in the room where the kisses ain’t free, you gotta pay with your body.” The Blade Runner imagery, a new attitude that attempted to let the listener in to his world, and another Drake collaboration were not enough for Tesfaye to take over the world.
Phase three sees his potential being realised. The first hint was in ‘Often’. Dropped after the Kiss Land cycle, but long before any mention of Beauty Behind the Madness, it was radio friendly with a huge hook. Out of everything released so far, it was his most accessible and conventional track. It is no wonder it ended up on the album.
Things just kept spiralling. His guest appearance on Ariana Grande’s ‘Love Me Harder’ had him popping up at award shows and made his voice a mainstay on popular radio. Then, the purposefully penned ‘Earned It’ featured in the massive 50 Shades of Grey movie. Twice. If sex sells, then finally his talent had found something to latch on to and made for a I’ll-whip-your-back-if-you-whip-mine situation. The movie was a success, and ‘Earned It’ was his biggest hit to date.
‘The Hills’ video followed. Another track unlike anything that came before, that would be inappropriate on Trilogy and is too realised for Kiss Land, and another hit. Still, it did not compare to the madness of ‘Can’t Feel My Face.’
When Tom Cruise and Stevie Wonder have both covered your song, and Taylor Swift invites you out during one of her concerts to perform, you have made the leap from a no-hit-wonder to a hit-machine. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ is the song of the summer, a mega hit, and as far away from a song like ‘Gone’ as you can imagine. Kiss Land seems important in hindsight – had this followed Trilogy it would have alienated a large portion of his audience. Instead, the journey has proved vital, and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ feels right.
There is nothing on Beauty Behind The Madness that has “hit” stamped on it like ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ but ‘In The Night’ comes close. Even closer to a Michael Jackson song that Tesfaye’s ‘Dirty Diana’ cover, ‘In The Night’ is an infectious and dancefloor filling anthem. The chorus is made for drunken attempts at hitting impossibly high notes while the verses are designed for Jackson-esque hip thrusts.
Becoming radio friendly is at the expense of feeling like a quote-unquote album. While Trilogy exists as a whole, Beauty Behind the Madness is a collection of fourteen songs. The Kanye West-produced ‘Tell Your Friends’ with its mid-2000s keys and subdued RnB feel has nothing in common with the aforementioned ‘Earned It.’ Ed Sheeran pops up for one of the most confusing collaborations this side of Lou Reed and Metallica on ‘Dark Times.’ His voice is deep and calculated, he sings of violence and solitude, totally at odds with his typically lovely image. Buried at the end of the album, as if to say Tesfaye needs no assistance, it sits beside the more obvious Lana Del Rey collaboration ‘Prisoner.’ Neither of these tracks shine as standouts – a shame, since Del Rey and Tesfaye seem like a match made in a heaven that is filled with excess and loveless sex. If nothing else, it is refreshing to hear the woman’s side in a Weeknd song, for once.
‘Shameless’ pulls the rug out from under you. The Weeknd has definitely been shameless up until this point, but this acoustic and rainy message to a girl who is sexually self-destructive sees him understand her rather than take advantage of the situation. Indeed, opener ‘Real Life’ seems almost out of character. A huge contrast from, chronologically, his first track ‘High For This’, here Tesfaye fesses up to his mistakes and flaws, free of ego and excuses.
‘Acquainted’ may be the track that sums up where Tesfaye is at. He acknowledges the past – “I’ve been ducking left and right, baby you’re no good” – but looks forward to a life where he lets love in – “I know I’d rather be complacent, but girl I’m so glad we’re acquainted.” This is still music to be played after dark, and there are subtle winks dedicated to where he came from, but the pop star Weeknd is not the same Weeknd who spent Trilogy drugged up and alone.
Beauty Behind the Madness is an ode to the King of Pop, to dancing, to finding love, with the excess and destructive hedonism taking a backseat.
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