The Canadian singer known as The Weeknd has had a strange career. Abel Tesfaye first released his music via YouTube, uploading What You Need, Loft Music, and The Morning in late 2010. Significant buzz ensued, almost immediately capitalised upon by the release of three free web mixtapes in 2011. House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence were incredible records, full of inventive hooks, atmospheric instrumentals, and Tesfaye’s propulsive falsetto; trip hop music in an R&B context. At the tender age of 21, the previously unheard-of Tesfaye had released three full-length albums in one year, and every song he appeared on showed a talent deserving of a place alongside the reigning giants of creative popular music. His mixtape trilogy went on to be downloaded over eight million times.
Closely aligned with fellow Canadian artist Drake, who in 2011 had just released his masterful Tesfaye-featuring Take Care album, The Weeknd looked set to be a fascinating alternative pop star. Tesfaye co-produced five songs on Take Care and sang the hooks on two; in the years since, a string of musicians, including Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross, Sia, and Ariana Grande have clamoured for Tesfaye’s helping hand on their projects. Meanwhile, Tesfaye signed a joint deal between his independent label XO and Republic Records, itself an imprint of Universal Music Group.
A formal re-release of his 2011 mixtapes, remastered and with a new track tacked on to the end of each, appeared in the form of 2012’s Trilogy. Peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, Trilogy eventually went on to be certified platinum. Now that Tesfaye had released a comprehensive collection of his early work, the stage was set for the singer to branch out and show us what he could do with exponentially more resources and a frantic year’s worth of worldly experience under his belt.
2013’s Kiss Land served as Tesfaye’s debut studio album, and it was a severe disappointment. Despite all the changes made to his advantage over the preceding year, Tesfaye’s songs on Kiss Land were a creative recession. He began by taking the lyrical tropes which had been explored in-depth on his mixtapes - sex, drugs, the underbelly of club life - and repeating them ad infinitum, turning those themes into self-parody and melodramatic gimmickry. While the production quality fared better, the tracks nonetheless lacked any of the innovation one might have expected from the man who brought us High For This and XO/The Host.
Cringeworthy Michael Jackson impersonations, misogynistic ramblings, and sleep-inducing filler tracks ensued. Sure there were highlights, such as Belong to the World and Pretty, but overall Kiss Land was staggeringly lackluster. "For what it’s worth, I hope you enjoy the show/ ‘Cause if you’re back here only takin’ pictures/ You gon’ have to take your ass home/ ‘Cause the only thing you’re takin’ is your clothes off/ Go ’head girl, strip it down, close your mouth/ I just wanna hear your body talk," sang Tesfaye on the title track, and the face-palm groans of millions were heard around the world. To top off the creative stagnation, Kiss Land also sold in disappointing numbers, an event that allegedly prompted a career-evaluation from Tesfaye.
Tesfaye has always been conscious of his place as a fringe-underground artist. Upon his signing to a major label, he penned a now-infamous open letter to his fans, describing the metaphor he had employed in a recent music video. "The gloomy side represents the mainstream world while the other side represents the underground. The girl holding on represents you. As the world slowly gets familiar with my face the more you will lose interest," he wrote. "The camera lights symbolize the crossover, and when they begin to flash I look away from the underground. Even though I don't want to, it is a step that I feel I must take to evolve as an artist."
Midway through 2015, Tesfaye released two singles - The Hills and Can’t Feel My Face - and announced the August release of Beauty Behind the Madness. Ed Sheeran revealed on Beats 1 that he would be featured on the album, along with Kanye West and Lana Del Rey. Illangelo, with whom Tesfaye has been working since his mixtape days, returns as a lead producer, while West and cohort Mike Dean also serve as beatsmiths on Tell Your Friends and Dark Times, respectively.
The chart-topping breakthrough single Can’t Feel My Face is a deliriously unconventional masterpiece. Produced by Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin (the man behind Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time, and many of the biggest hit singles by artists like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson), Can’t Feel My Face is polished pop of the sort Tesfaye has never quite mastered before. As detailed in a fascinating New York Times profile, Tesfaye approached Martin and his team - who work out of Frank Sinatra's old mansion in West Hollywood - because he wanted to become a pop star. In his search for the mainstream success that eluded him on Kiss Land, Tesfaye relinquished complete control over the songwriting process for the first time, and offered himself up to Martin's hit-factory.
Accordingly, Can’t Feel My Face is Tesfaye's pop mission statement. A short introduction gives a preview of the hook before disappearing with a Michael Jackson-esque whoo! into the jarringly contrasted refrain, going low when we expect a bigger high. “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you/ But I love it,” Tesfaye deadpans, as the melody falls almost abrasively flat and the singer slides out of his patented falsetto and into the plain statement of these lines, only to claw his way back to the hook with time.
Tesfaye employs this effective bait and switch throughout the track, contrasting the repetitive refrain with intensity-building melodic verses and a bridge in which he sings: “She told me, ‘Don’t worry about it’/ She told me, ‘Don’t worry no more’/ We both know we can’t go without it/ She told me, ‘You’ll never be alone.’” During Can’t Feel My Face, the parallels Tesfaye draws between romantic attachment and the numbing effects of cocaine are evident: “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/ All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love/ This I know.”
The Hills takes a different approach, opening with a buzzy squall of synthesiser aggression before settling into a typically dark, lurching, trap-inspired drumbeat and off-kilter atmospheric sound effects. The template is not dramatically different from Kiss Land cuts like The Town, but what Tesfaye does with the material is noticeably so. Atop the nightmarish John Carpenter instrumentals Tesfaye has trademarked, the singer croons and the song explodes with ferocious bass thuds: “I only call you when it’s half past five/ The only time that I’ll be by your side/ I only love it when you touch me, not feel me/ When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” It’s a dangerous, self-destructive sentiment that Tesfaye has carried with him throughout his career, but on The Hills the whole thing sounds more earnest, more believable. The dark drug paranoia and sexual debauchery that have long run through Tesfaye’s lyrics are catchier, more insistent, and convincing at last.
On these songs, Tesfaye plays to the strengths of his mixtape sound while introducing just the right amount of catchy commercialism. The bass hits are deep, extending far into the subwoofer-shaking territory of modern EDM, while melancholic keyboards, waves of synthesiser chords, swelling strings, multi-layered harmonies, and warped vocal samples form the majority of what we hear. These tracks are somehow simultaneously chaotic and minimalistic, mixing a potent and intense brew from only a few ingredients; aural turpentine, overpowering and entrancing. Typical of Tesfaye, it’s an addictive blend.
The 2014 promotional single Often is a menacing slow-burner that sees Tesfaye revisit familiar sexist tropes atop futuristic soundscapes drawn directly from his early work. Tesfaye is able to work more creatively with melody and song structure than previously, and through these efforts Often isn’t an out-and-out failure, but it bears no sign of progress when compared to a song like Can’t Feel My Face. Often may be Katy Perry’s favourite song to have sex to, but it’s a mostly-disappointing retread of ideas Tesfaye first had five years ago.
There are some tracks that fall flat and would have been better left off - Acquainted, As You Are - but most are enjoyable examples of how Tesfaye can improve and commercialise his music without straying too far out of his comfort zone. Losers cleverly employs mainstream dance production to great effect, while Angel is a soul-baring ballad aided by piano, guitar, strings and a genuinely emotive sentiment, and the West-produced Tell Your Friends is made fantastic by the soulful, vintage beat, despite Tesfaye’s best efforts to undermine the atmosphere by reverting to lewd lyrical couplets. Make no mistake, Beauty Behind the Madness is a full-fledged pop record, the moment where Tesfaye finally sheds his alternative prefix. These are catchy, enjoyable songs that speak to a larger audience than Tesfaye’s darker, more avant-garde material ever will.
Earned It, which first appeared - fittingly - on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, is an orchestral ballad helped along immeasurably by the outstanding instrumental. Lurching quarter-note drum hits, spiky string arrangements, and sparse bass notes carry the song while Tesfaye’s vocal is melodic (co-written by one of Celine Dion's songwriters) and - regrettably - lascivious as usual. Throughout Beauty Behind the Madness, Tesfaye’s lack of lyrical imagination is a source of constant frustration. With an innate knack for commanding instantly-memorable melodies, a spectacular voice, and a bevy of the world’s best producers at his disposal, Tesfaye seems content to repeat himself over and over; sex, drugs, sexy drugs, druggy sex, etc. - it’s all a little tiring.
Still, Tesfaye embodies a character as he sings his songs. Little is known about the largely-withdrawn star, but it is hard to believe that his life is quite as wild and cinematically debauched as he paints it. Rather, the character he chooses to portray serves as a sign of the times he lives in; these songs are intended to be the collective anthem for all the young people currently wandering through their 20s in a daze: wild-eyed, stumbling through the streets at dawn, numb to it all. In that sense, Tesfaye’s lyrics are cleverly pessimistic observations of wild modern life; a club atmosphere in which Tesfaye clearly sees himself king, prophet, and chief observer.
Beauty Behind the Madness is not a perfect album, but it is the long-awaited peak of Abel Tesfaye’s work as The Weeknd. His particular brand of oh-so-cool hedonism and cringeworthy misogyny has gotten tiring, but Tesfaye’s songs have largely been saved by clever songcraft, expert production, and thematic intensity. Beauty Behind the Madness is the second mainstream album this year in which a considerably talented artist has - frustratingly - made their best album largely by the efforts of those with whom they have collaborated.
At one point when he first debuted, many expected Tesfaye to branch out into sounds reaching far beyond those of his first songs. Instead, his work over the past half-decade has been a series of refinements and alterations of his original formula, with varying degrees of success. Beauty Behind the Madness is Tesfaye’s best work because it mostly gets the balance of elements right while experimenting just far enough to push his limits as an artist. There are sure-fire hits, driving anthems, and a few dull yawns, but these songs are a mostly-successful collection of heady pop cuts for the modern age.
Now there can be no doubt what The Weeknd will do next; Tesfaye’s mystique as contemporary music’s nascent alternative genius has faded. In its place stands a verifiable star who commands attention critically and commercially by confidently occupying a niche he invented and perfected himself. The creative musical underground has lost a trailblazer, but mainstream pop music has gained a front-runner. Tesfaye's audience will continue to grow on the strength of tracks like Can’t Feel My Face and Earned It, while the singer will likely be remembered as an artist who transitioned from genuinely exciting pop experimentalism into a bankable commercial force with a bit of a dark side.
After all, there is plenty to enjoy on Beauty Behind the Madness and very little that is bad. Yet alongside the euphoric joy there is also the bitter taste of missed opportunity and altered aspirations. Fittingly, Tesfaye’s career has followed a trajectory not unlike that of the mind-bending chemicals he loves to sing about: a mad rush, a heady high, a vague unease, unforeseen upset, fear, loathing, and the faded self that slowly disappears. A changed man stands before a thronging crowd.
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