The moment when an artist “goes pop” is a fun one to watch unfold. Christopher Nolan making a Batman movie. Liz Phair making “Why Can’t I.” CM Punk getting signed by the WWE. For Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, that moment was the big hit “Earned It.” With three nearly perfect mixtapes and one middling studio debut under his belt, Tesfaye was at something of a crossroads. One false move and he’s replaced in the psychosphere by the next sex-addicted Canadian weirdo Drake deigns to share a Bud Light Strawberita with. Luckily, some fucking genius realized how perfect it was to get the guy who sang “the only girls we fuck with seem to have twenty different pills in them” to do the lead single for the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, and the ensuing finished product was so startlingly catchy that a left turn into the mainstream was all but set in stone.
Beauty Behind The Madness is a suitably curious album from an artist as weird as The Weeknd. Tesfaye is an odd duck. Thanks to his hair, his silhouette resembles one of the Lynchian hallucinations Will Graham keeps having on Hannibal. The album’s title sounds like the header on a seventeen-year-old’s Tumblr page, no doubt filled with a nigh-infinite scroll of Fiji water bottles, dimly lit selfies captioned with caustic aphorisms, and images of couples eating coffee table sized portions of McDonald’s french fries with hashtags that say “goals af.” The Tumblr allusion is fitting, as his entire public persona up to now has been artfully curated and purposefully obscured like an internet presence. With the pop cred title run on deck, Tesfaye had to mix things up, opening himself up to collaborations with Max Martin’s League of Effortless Hitmakers and doing NY Times profiles. Rather than a thirsty bid for acceptance, the sudden shift to ascendant stardom is just the kick in the nads his well-worn style so desperately needed.
Tesfaye’s always survived off of a kind of misanthropic wish fulfilment fantasy. The average Weeknd devotee is probably not unlike how Tesfaye himself comes off: withdrawn, insecure, more than a little predatory. The attitude omnipresent in his music falls somewhere between “guys who still unironically talk about the friend zone” and “guys who aspire to be Drake.” It’s essentially the arc from Breaking Bad, but replace meth cooking and murder with pill popping and womanizing. On recent guest appearances for remixes of Ty Dolla $ign’s “Or Nah” and Mike Will Made It’s “Drinks On Us,” he cranked up the imaginative flexing levels to heretofore unexplored heights, managing to sound deliriously unsexy on the former and comically swagged out on the latter. This was the “0-100” tipping point. Tesfaye’s older music framed him as the protagonist, yes, but he was so hidden in the mix that it seemed like a character, a nefarious stand-in designed to exemplify the darker side of Toronto’s night life. With these newer tracks, he was openly embodying this persona moreso than ever, owning it, luxuriating in it. Even the loudest of bell towers couldn’t separate him from the venomous symbiote grafted to his person now.
The magic of going pop is that, after four releases, that mysterious supervillain shit doesn’t fly any more. “Earned It” made its way to all manner of romantic Spotify playlists. This was bae-making music now, however misguided or problematic. You can’t just juxtapose that with songs about psychologically abusing drug-addicted masochists, no matter how dope the instrumentals are. Right?
BBTM is something of a hat trick in that regard, building a drawbridge between “old Weeknd” and “new Weeknd.” The fourteen track run time is divided into easily digestible story arcs, not unlike a season of prestige television. “Real Life” and “Losers” serve as a “previously seen on” prologue, catching you up on Tesfaye’s life up until now. Neither track would have been out of place on Kiss Land, to be honest, with their simple self-mythologizing. He wasn’t made for real love. He didn’t go to school. He’s still swagging on you, and has probably gotten your girl’s hands caught in his woefully elaborate coiffure. This little catch-up preamble sets up the album’s first miracle run, an expert, hi-def redux of Trilogy era stylistics.
“Tell Your Friends,” produced by Kanye West, Che Pope, and probably sixteen other people, is a great state of the union. Over a classic Soul Dog sample, tricked out with little MBDTF-esque flourishes (Mike Dean guitar solo!), Tesfaye plainly lays out his current mindset, particularly in regards to his newfound fame. The song is clever, regal, and relaxed. By draining out all the abject menace for a brief moment, he presents himself as almost likable. “They told me not to fall in love, that shit is pointless.” For the first time in his music, this wanton fuck-glutton almost sounds like a person. His petty porn contrivances feel more like defense mechanisms than finishing maneuvers. It makes him an understandable figure, if far from a laudable one.
Following it up with the one-two punch of “Often,” a song that’s been out for a year but still bangs, and “The Hills,” arguably the greatest song Abel’s ever been associated with, is another great sequencing trick. Alongside “Acquainted,” it’s a masterful reinvention of the sound that put him on the map, fucked up on steroids and a stronger, less esoteric understanding of songcraft. If the entire album followed in this mode, it’d be a little rote, but still impressive. Making a Desperado to House of Balloon‘s El Mariachi would have sated the fans, but it wouldn’t cement Tesfaye as a real Billboard contender.
That’s where “Can’t Feel My Face” comes in. Even if you don’t like it, chances are you’ve heard it roughly seven quintillion times this summer. With that eighties synth snap and neon drenched groove, its hard to argue against its infectious power, but even that isn’t the album’s true apex. “In The Night,” the other notable Max Martin production, is a serious powerhouse. It’s obvious that Tesfaye’s Michael Jackson fandom shines through in these cuts, but it makes for an interesting comparison between The King of Pop and this wounded little Saiyan prince. MJ was always a cinematic singer. His best songs conjure vibrant imagery to match the crisp sonics. He was like the Martin Scorsese of pop music that way. Tesfaye has been more like Larry Clark, capturing sleazy realism with a peeping tom’s eye for detail. He’s a vivid storyteller, but the scope of his gaze is much more low brow. The result is a powerful, brilliant piece of pop music somewhat frustratingly bogged down by questionable content.
Even in aping MJ’s execution and vibe, there’s something discomforting about his choice of subject matter. “In The Night” sounds like a nightclub-ready ballad about a sex worker running from past trauma. While that’s kind of progress for Tesfaye (if Drake is criticized for exploiting strippers like a John Green protagonist, The Weeknd’s always used them like set decoration for a nightmare production designed by your creepy uncle), it still feels weird that his evolution is built on the back of rape as an easy trope for men writing about women, even in pop music. MJ sang about some scary shit (“beasts with forty eyes?” what the entire fuck, Mike?) but nothing on Thriller really needed a trigger warning.
As Abel shares more and the music becomes more overtly autobiographical, these plentiful sins on display lose their rogueish mystique and, laid bare, reveal themselves to be pretty fucked up. This newfound introspection (omnipresent for the first time since Echoes of Silence), intermingled with Swedish pop influence, gives tension to the album’s greatest heights. “Shameless” is perhaps best example of that self-awareness creeping in, and it’s one of the few songs where he sounds truly three-dimensional, neither a scoundrel-y shadow on the wall nor an A&R’d apparition of false radio-friendliness.
An unlikely guest appearance from Ed Sheeran is pleasant enough, echoing Drake’s surreptitious cameo on Thursday‘s “The Zone.” It’s good for Abel to have a foil on wax to remind you how singular his brand of sonic sociopathy is. The song in question, “Dark Places,” is all scuzz slackened, blues-y twang, awash in false bravado and faux lament. Sheeran seems to be having fun with his hungover Matt Murdock cosplay, hamming it up as a regretful drunk pugilist. The song’s wind down gives Tesfaye an opportunity to feel guilt and consternation for the LP’s earlier selfishness, offering the appearance of character growth if nothing else.
“Prisoner” offers a very likely guest appearance with its telegraphed Lana Del Rey feature. These two on a track together is like those little peanut butter and jelly combo jars stores used to sell to people who didn’t want the inconvenience of having to twist off two lids to get their treat. It’s the kind of easy throwaway track you drop on Soundcloud to build buzz for a real single, and comes nowhere close to the rest of the album’s finest moments.
It would have made for a decent closing track, though, which is more than can be said about “Angel,” the infuriating bittersweetness Tesfaye chooses to use as a final number. “Angel” bores almost as much as it confounds. It’s a fucking baffling inclusion, sounding like the theme of an early nineties Kevin Costner movie from that weird era where we all pretended Kevin Costner was a fucking movie star. I mean this in the most damning way possible. It’s not just a pop culture reference. It’s a scathing indictment of how corny and reaching this eleventh hour Hail Mary for emotional sincerity is. Tesfaye sings like Bryan Adams about letting go of a girl who’s too good for him and wishing her well. If it felt honest, it’d be applauseworthy, a fitting denoument for a short career characterized by using and abusing women brought to a chapter break of genuine human evolution. Instead, it feels like an attempt to gloss over his earlier transgressions, rather than an earnest effort at learning from them.
BBTM is at its best when adding new dimensions to Tesfaye’s reliably dark and moody odes to being an unrelenting piece of shit. His perpetual villainy is troubling, but given believable strands of complexity, like those found on “Shameless” and “Acquainted,” it’s far more palatable than the blatant artifice of songs like “Angel.” From an artistic standpoint, it’s thrilling to hear The Weeknd evolve to this point. Hearing him move away from the repetitive weirdness of his prior work into something more outsized and exciting is a blast, and for much of this album’s run time, the pop experiment is a successful one. The only takeaway is that he still needs to find a balance between the way he portrays himself with the music’s narrative. Self-flagellating misanthropy mixed with Top 40 aspirations is intriguing. Opportunistic misogyny sprinkled with dope hooks and some placating cooing is another thing entirely. Here’s hoping the next chapter brings more of the former.
The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness is in stores now.