It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on why I picked this album read this.
Abel Tesfaye, also known as the The Weeknd (yes it’s spelled Weeknd) is an R&B artist who’s quickly rising to prominence and all of his efforts have culminated around the release of his latest album, Beauty Behind the Madness, which came out in August of 2015. The first song I ever heard from The Weeknd was “Often,” and although I thought it was a catchy, the content of the song didn’t inspire thoughts that I was listening to one of the “best artists of the year,” but when December came that’s the exact type of praise that The Weeknd received. Beauty Behind the Madness found its way on various year-end lists including NME, Rolling Stone, and it’s even in the running for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Clearly The Weeknd had struck something that people had been yearning for and I wanted to hear it for myself.
Beauty Behind the Madness is an album that’s interesting because of how it sounds as opposed to the content and image of the person who made it. I just want to get this part out of the way because as I read more and more about The Weeknd, there seems to be a big deal about “what an image” he’s crafted for himself, but when you put it down on paper he’s doesn’t strike me as remarkable. When Tesfaye was 17, he dropped out of High School to pursue his musical career. He didn’t have a father figure in his life and was raised by his mother who worked various jobs, and his grandmother. When he dropped out of school he also moved out, along with his friends, and they rented an apartment, however they were quickly evicted when they couldn’t afford rent. This forced Tesfaye to find other ways of finding warm beds to sleep at night, and his way of doing that was one night stands. A lot of them. Even his name comes from “leaving one weekend and never coming back.” As a result, all of The Weeknd’s material deals with the following topics: sex, drugs, love is dumb, self-destruction. If this was Jeopardy and I asked you which artist I was talking about based on those frequented topics, you could give me a thousand answers.
The Weeknd’s identity doesn’t come from his lyrical content or hairdo, but from his sound. When I first started breaking in Beauty Behind the Madness I jumped to the singles, specifically Can’t Feel My Face, and maybe a minute into my first listen I noticed “this guy sounds a lot like Michael Jackson.” Unsurprisingly, The Weeknd lists Michael Jackson as one of his biggest influences, and actually famously did a cover of Dirty Diana during a premiere show in London when Katy Perry and Florence Welch were in attendance. Dirty Diana specifically is a good reference point for a lot of The Weeknd’s songs. They occasionally have an arena rock influence and guitar solos but a clear R&B base (Real Life, Shameless). Not all of his tracks do this, and that’s probably where the Michael Jackson 1980s influence is most prevalent, in songs like In The Night and As You Are.
Personally I liked best the tracks that departed from that style, but I’ve had a hard time characterizing what they are outside of “R&B,” and I don’t even know what R&B even means anymore. Tell Your Friends has smooth production values and sampling accompanied with a muted guitar solo in the middle. It’s probably no surprise that this track was produced by Kanye West and I love almost anything West touches. Moving down the track list I have to give obvious shout outs to all the singles: Often, The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, but at a certain point I remember thinking “Ok, you have uncommitted sex a lot… I get it.” Maybe that’s just me, but even for someone in the Hip Hop and R&B world this guy won’t shut up about it.
My personal favorites off the album were the two guest tracks toward the end: Dark Times with Ed Sheeran, and Prisoner featuring Lana Del Rey. Dark Times has a bluesy guitar sustaining the gloomy mood, a welcome change from the egocentricity found on the rest of the album. This continues with Prisoner, which has the added benefit of Lana Del Rey’s vocals and her character/personal story seems to fit well with what The Weeknd is preaching (Hollywood vices, promiscuous sex, etc.). Overall there are particular songs I like better than others, but there are few times I find myself wanting to skip over anything. In fact I more frequently find myself bracing myself for the best part of a particular song, such as the endings of Acquainted or Losers which contain instrumental outros which are really great.
I also want to point out The Weeknd’s affinity for double meanings which are littered all over his lyrics. It’s easiest to see in Can’t Feel My Face which is easy to interrupt as either a song about a toxic relationship with an actual woman or a song about a drug addiction, specifically to cocaine. With lyrics like “and I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb; and she’ll always get the best of me the worst is yet to come,” referencing either the deepening of a relationship taking its toll on him, or his impending addiction to a drug he can’t function without. Some fan theories suggest this song is actually about The Weeknd becoming “too mainstream” and not liking it, but this seems big-headed in my opinion. However, most of The Weeknd’s song contain a lot of double meanings, enough that I’d recommend checking out the rapgenius analysis for the explanation of what else they refer to. It’s interesting stuff.
I found listening to Beauty Behind the Madness really easy. All of the tracks are approachable, and there’s enough going on in each song that it doesn’t sound simple. I also appreciate that even though The Weeknd can be added to the battalion of other artists today talking about sex and drugs and how they might be doing too much of both, his love for lyrical duality add a bonus for attentive listening. If there was a time to listen to The Weeknd, it’s probably now, because judging by the lifestyle he claims to be living, he’s either going to burn out or die in the next three years. I wouldn’t count on him releasing another album of note. It’s also too bad he had to make this album in 2015, because Kendrick Lamar is totally getting that Grammy.