The Weeknd is, for me, a hit or miss artist. Real name Abel Tesfaye, the man has a unique sound and a strong voice but his 2011 mixtapes were mostly shallow, mistaking lewdness for sexiness and too concerned with being trendy and mysterious to have any staying power. His debut full length Kissland was bereft of even a strong single, making him one of the few artists to have more success from his free releases than paid. His new single ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ however displayed a certain pop prowess – and I hoped his new album would set him in a less adolescent direction.
My hopes were confirmed so swiftly I struggled to catch my breath: Beauty Behind The Madness kicking off with a one-two punch of quite fantastic songs. First comes ‘Real Life’ with a Hans Zimmer-aping drone blasting the LP into life, starting with gorgeous synthetic strings and Abel crooning the best he ever has. The production is bold and modern but with an attention to detail his past work lacked – and the lyrics take a step from the sort of Internet-age narcissistic angst the likes of House of Balloons boasted; here the hook cooing “Cause every woman that loved me/I seemed to push them away/That’s real life.” ‘Losers’ then enters with a distant leitmotif and some hand claps that sound like the kind of thing Nina Simone would pull together, and then hammers into life with a stomping rhythm that’s more like the sort of brash beat Timbaland cooked up for Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. “What can you show me, that my heart don’t know already?” goes a brilliantly catchy lead melody… Abel talks of being grown on this song, and his song-writing seems to show it.
But sadly sometimes he does indulge in the sort of material from his Trilogy past, and the record takes a steep decline. ‘Tell Your Friends’ is a really terrible song. Kanye West came through with a solid instrumental sometimes reminiscent of ‘Runaway’ – but Abel’s lyrics spoil any persona the first two tracks built for him. Almost every one induces a wince: “these niggas they been doing too much flexing/But they about to follow my intention”, “I’m never rocking white, I’m like a racist”, “Baby girl just wanna smoke a pound/Do an ounce, get some dick”, “I just made another killing/Spend it all on bitches/Pussy on the house, everybody fucking.” It sounds like an emo personification of every roadman Instagram post of the last year – he’s trying hard to give himself an edge by talking about coke and sex but it’s so embarrassing it’s hard to make it through the song, and the hook “I’m that nigga with the hair/Singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches/go tell your friends about it” makes him sound like a petulant child. What happened to the subtlety of the other songs I have no idea, but it sounds like he gave up on being a real musician on this one. The song is a car crash and ‘Often’ with phrases like “I’m never sour, I’m just smokin’ somethin’ much louder” isn’t much better… The issue with these songs is that their impact is longer than the track’s lengths – its a few songs before you can start to take him seriously again.
Maybe Abel should hire a ghost-writer because when his lyrics are bad they’re gross and ruin whole tracks
Because of this, as a sex figure he’s much more effectual sonically than lyrically. ‘As You Are’ opens with a deliciously moody synth, and the pop ballad which follows actually sounds like it’s set in the sort of smoky room I imagine is in his head when he says shit like “make that pussy pop”, Abel reminding how capable a crooner he can be. ‘Dark Times’ with Ed Sheeran manages the same with a briskly down-stroked guitar and some subtle finger snaps breaking into some deep bass trembles. This song is also much better at painting a diamond in the rough image for Abel than in some of his more cringe worthy moments. The line “only my mother could love me for me, in my dark times” is quite evocative.
‘Earned It’ from the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey is also more eventful than its cinematic counterpart – Abel’s voice sounds great and the song ingeniously mixes cabaret instrumentation into an art-deco reformat of the ultra-modern sound of songs like ‘The Hills’, with violin strokes in place of bass drops and tinkling piano instead of high-hats. It’s a beautifully produced song, which really commits to Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound ideology. Then there’s the aforementioned ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ – the MJ comparison is obvious but just: it’s an incredibly sticky tune with a funky breakdown in the chorus and a bassline rich as chocolate fudge. It’s a great single and I went into this album hoping for a pop record made up of smash hits like it, but it manages to work without them. The only other track which falls into a similar groove is ‘In The Night’ which if anything has a deeper punch, and a tempo that doesn’t let up across its smartly svelte runtime.
The Weeknd’s music sounds as contemporary as you can get, but his producers do a really good job of re-appropriating it’s facets in new ways. ‘Prisoner’ (on which Lana Del Rey pops up to get her ‘bored’ on) and first single ‘The Hills’ utilise hard bass drops but the songs wouldn’t work in a club setting; they are used to express despair in much the same way string sections once might have. On ‘Aquainted’ there are some really nice tropical drum patterns; the tenants of trap music threaded through the pop formula well.
The line “only my mother could love me for me, in my dark times” is quite evocative.
‘Angels’ is a really epic closer. It’s a bit uncomfortable having a children’s choir on an album with this many references to “pussy” but they do heighten the bombast and bring the album home. The sentiment here, of Abel letting go of a girl he calls his “angel” and crooning “I hope you find somebody to love” is a mature and heartfelt sentiment too. When the lyrics are done right The Weeknd comes across as a really lonely figure, which is more desirable than when he comes off like such an ass you can understand why he might be.
The weak spots from the album actually only really come from the lyrics; the rest of this LP’s make up is really strong. Maybe Abel should get some tips from his mentor Drake and hire a ghost-writer because when his lyrics are bad they’re really gross and ruin whole tracks. He should at least keep it personal rather than trying to force a tough-guy image on an album full of love songs. It’s a nice surprise to have some really great music here though, and they can honestly be recommended to those to whom The Weeknd has never really impressed, because on this record his talent is really allowed to shine for the first time.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’ by Iggy and The Stooges
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.