Once upon a time, The Weeknd was poised to be indie-R&B’s most grim and gloomy figure with the release of his moody and ominous mixtapes, later to be repackaged and referred to simply as Trilogy. Instead of lingering in this unique, more sinister take on traditional R&B, the last few years have seen The Weeknd drive towards a more accessible style. His studio debut, Kiss Land was sonically ambitious, foreign, and luxe, but fell flat due to it’s uninspired lyrics and lack of conceptual depth. It became clear that Abel was trying to ditch his callous, sexually explicit themes to head down lyrical avenues that offered more emotional depth, but on Kiss Land, it culminated into a diluted, impotent version of his opus mixtapes. On his second studio album, Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd has successfully pivoted into an effective, full-out pop lane, and although the record will boldly translate into radio formats and the masses, the core of the lengthy record will still come across noticeably hollow.
Don’t get it twisted, the chops are still here. Abel is floating elegantly off the rip from the epic, grandiose intro ‘Real Life’ over shredding guitars and polished string arrangements. It’s not only a flowing example of perfectly mastered tempo, but it’s a great step-above from his efforts on Kiss Land in terms of songwriting. The Weeknd comes across fully emotive and personal without disclosing explicit details regarding sex or drug-abuse, instead tapping into his mother’s take on his persona and those implications on his personal relationships. It’s actually a poignant, shining moment on the record that will leave you satisfied and invested in a side of Abel rarely exposed. ‘Shameless’ stands on similar grounds, as Abel showcases a much stronger ability to write touching choruses than ever before.
Unfortunately, these are moments don’t come around that often on this record. ‘Losers’ features an ambitious instrumental and a savoury performance from guest Labryinth, but the lyrics are incredibly stale and tedious. It has the melodies and beat to boast radio-appeal, but not enough lyrical stability to really get stuck in your head. ‘Angels’ is epic and sugary and impressive at times, but for the most part, it’s strange blend of glam-rock and orchestration paired with it’s repetitive melodies and lyrics kill the track before it can really tug at your heart-strings. When Abel’s not pivoting completely from his appealing qualities on his breakout mixtapes, he’s repeating those themes and re-hashing them in an uninspired way on tracks like ‘Often’ and ‘The Hills’. Both songs aren’t terrible by any measure, but seconds into each song, you already know how the stories end. The former features an interesting sample with engaging trap-percussion, and is fun and flirty with it’s sexual nature, but doesn’t innovate or impress. Still, ‘Often’ is a sexy, female-friendly banger, even if it is over a year-old. ‘The Hills’ features the exact song structure as Trilogy favourite ‘High for This’, with subdued verses and a trap-electronic bass drop to introduce the chorus. “When i’m fucked up, that’s the real me,” Abel moans.
Sometimes, though, the risks pay off for Abel. ‘Aquainted’ achieves that fun and flirty feel with production that’s refreshing, blending the futuristic sounds of Kiss Land with the modernized drum sounds Abel toyed with on Echoes of Silence. Album standout ‘Tell Your Friends’ is a smooth, silky, and sexy pro-groupie anthem with a minimalistic loop courtesy of Kanye West. The Weeknd alluringly spits a familiar flow with an engaging narrative about his current life, but ultimately this song stands out because it’s a moment on the album that doesn’t try too hard to standout. It’s equal parts free-flowing and structured, with melodies fluctuating between verses only to return to the same infectious, simplistic hook. It’s a formula that shows up frequently on Beauty, as the growth seen with Abel in regards to song-structure is astounding. Smash-single ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ is a perfect example of Abel using his vocal inflections and Max Martin’s pop-pen influencing in all the right ways. It’s a home-run of a record and one of the year’s most infectious singles.
Abel might have mastered the art of engaging song-structure, but the biggest holes in this record that keep it from being the modern pop-classic we wanted it to be is the content. You can listen to the entire album top to bottom and not only can you count the amount of touching moments on one hand, you will also walk away without any real message or appreciation for Abel’s character. At least in the House of Balloons era, the intriguing aspects of The Weeknd’s music wasn’t in his sexually explicit lines or his openness about drug-use, it was the ability to keep the listener invested in the emotional subtexts of living that lifestyle. With this album, Abel might have traded the claustrophobic writing queues for pop-structures that can infect any ear, but you can’t help but feel like he has sloppily crossed over content-wise, as he is either explicitly being emotional or explicitly being sexual without the balance and emotional reach that Trilogy offered.
Despite the absence of that humanized relatability found in Abel’s R&B records of the past, Beauty Behind the Madness is still The Weeknd’s strongest studio release yet. His pop-footing comes across strong and effective on tracks like ‘In the Night’ and ‘Earned It’, while the back-to-back duets on the tail end of this album also prove that Abel is a master collaborator. Lana Del Rey absolutely slays on ‘Prisoner’ with some of the most incredible songwriting on the entire album. It’s not overtly technical, and honestly it’s structure is really borrowed from past Weeknd records, but Lana’s vocal performance is so refreshing that it turns the track into a moody masterpiece. Ed Sheeran adds his own twist on Abel’s dark, gritty lifestyle on ‘Dark Times’, which is one of Ed’s most incredible vocal performances we’ve heard from him in recent memory. The instrumental is a true hybrid of the two performers with a strumming guitar trading places with grungy drums and chic-string arrangements.
Beauty Behind The Madness isn’t perfect, and it’s glaringly monotonous in terms of Abel’s tired story, but the records themselves are often impactful and flavourful in ways that most pop-records aren’t. It’s an entertaining listen nonetheless, as Abel further develops his character to be a little less self-loathing and a little more affectionate and empathetic. Instead of being vulnerable as a drugged out, misguided and desloate teen, The Weeknd has grown up, becoming a more vulnerable figure writing about the emptiness of his relationships and ways of the past. The simple fact is, Abel might not be the awe-inspiring writer we thought he was, but with this album, he’s become he pop-superstar no one expected him to be.