Since Michael Jackson exploded onto the pop scene with his superhuman singing and dance skills, many artists have tried and failed to replicate what made him so special. Abel Tesfaye, known by his stage name The Weeknd, knows any effort to recreate Michael Jackson is futile. Instead, with his new album, Beauty Behind the Madness, he decided to twist the formula.
After a trio of mixtapes, Tesfaye quickly established himself as the dark and brooding, yet creative, artist pop music needed. His debut album, Kiss Land, brightened the mood with more dynamic hooks and colorful production but fell short of its lofty intellectual goals. Released Friday, Tesfaye’s newest album ignores criticisms of his previous record and plows forward to create an enjoyable blend of his older mixtape persona and newer, pop-friendly personality.
The production sets the mood before Tesfaye even begins to sing. “Often” is lyrically simple but garnishes attention for producer Ben Billions’ beats. At times, the echo of drum machines and trap-influenced bass can be a slight nuisance, but, overall, most production moves are done in good taste.
Tesfaye’s voice is far from weak, but certain lyrical moments distract by channeling Michael Jackson a bit too much. “Can’t Feel My Face” features an auto-tuned disco pop version of Tesfaye’s voice — one of the biggest vocal flops on the album. This might generate single sales, but it completely abandons the sensitive side to Tesfaye’s music displayed throughout the record.
The Weeknd’s works usually contain an intellectual element, and Beauty Behind the Madness delivers on that front. The main lyrical ploy used by Tesfaye is contradiction. Every song is hypnotic in the way it blends the successes and struggles of life. “Tell Your Friends” has a boastful chorus that attempts to turn each one of Tesfaye’s listeners into a walking advertisement to help fulfill his relentless drive for fame. Yet, when he claims “My cousin said I made it big, and it’s unusual/She tried to take a selfie at my grandma’s funeral,” there’s a bittersweet attitude toward his newfound and self-driven celebrity.
Tesfaye continues to contradict himself while discussing the unbridled passion and pain associated with love. During “The Hills,” Tesfaye describes a failing affair he’s been having. He initially regrets the loss, singing “I’m just tryna get you out the friend zone/‘Cause you look even better than the photos,” but he then turns around and attacks the woman by citing her as the one responsible for the downfall of the relationship.
This album is a tale of Tesfaye’s fight with his thoughts, which he often tries to subdue with drugs. Drugs are tied so closely to his personality that even “XO” is a reference to ecstasy and oxycodone. He wholeheartedly recognizes this but doesn’t want to change, claiming during “The Hills” that his true personality comes out when he’s using.
Tesfaye made a great move by ignoring criticisms and focusing on the music. There are few moments that Beauty Behind the Madness becomes an unenjoyable record, and most pop fans should give it multiple listens.
The three main themes of fame, love and drugs all culminate to make a powerful statement, but it’s Tesfaye’s sensitive and prideful personality that make his art impossible to downplay from its status as the best R&B out there. He’s not painting a complex picture, but this album’s overall consistency and energy make Beauty Behind the Madness Tesfaye’s best release.