The Weeknd’s recent success has done much to mask the disappointment that continues to emanate from his major label debut, Kiss Land. His feature on Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” and his contribution to the 50 Shades of Grey OST have brought him to the forefront of mainstream music, while releases such as “Often” and “‘King Of The Fall” have appeased his core fans. Beauty Behind The Madness will prove to be a pivotal release in The Weeknd’s career, as he attempts to navigate that treacherous dichotomy. The million-dollar question is, how will Abel become the world’s biggest pop star without alienating his core fans from the Trilogy era?
Real Life – 7.5/10
Real Life is a surprising opening track, revealing and introspective while remaining ominous, booming, and operatic. Opening up about how unsustainable his lifestyle is, Abel quotes his own mother on the pre-chorus, saying “Mama called me destructive, oh yeah/Said it ruined me one day, yeah/Cause every woman that loved me, yeah/I seemed to push them away.” The crushing part though, is when the chorus begins and he dismisses these faults as simply being ‘real life’. Lyrical catharsis on this track is buoyed by thunderous production, utilising piano and strings to complement the melody of Abel’s voice. A strong, imposing opener.
Losers (Feat. Labrinth) – 5/10
On the next track, we hear Abel team up with English pop singer Labrinth as they criticize those who stayed in school while he himself dropped out. This is a premise which may seem illogical at first, but makes greater sense when one considers how Abel was free to push himself when unshackled by the restraint of education. After the first hook, the sombre, piano-based production gives way to Labrinth-inspired upbeat, electronic sounds. Labrinth then repeats Abel’s first verse, taking a more explicit perspective by claiming that school can’t teach you how to love, and is useless. The song ends with Abel melodising, asking his old school friends if he’s the loser, quashing that argument by saying he’s coming for the throne. This bridge sets the tone for the upcoming poppiness in the album, as Abel’s transition into pop music with hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” has been well-publicised and sets him up for further success. While an interesting premise for a song, “Losers” doesn’t stay in your head. It’s not a powerful song, and not emotional enough to have an impact. Labrinth is also a weak feature on this song as his quivering voice is no match for Abel’s.
Tell Your Friends – 8.5/10
One of the most anticipated songs on the album, this Kanye West-produced track is totally unlike the recent efforts from Yeezy. It’s a slow jam, smooth and mellifluous, that turns into a classic Kanye guitar riff outro. Reminiscent of a Dilla album, such an instrumental provides a good platform for Abel to wax lyrically about his life. Speaking on his crew, his disdain for profligacy in rap and his drugged up, sex filled evenings. That’s just the first verse. As if this openness wasn’t enough, he then launches into the chorus asking the listener to spread these revelations. He goes on to pledge to spend his newly-acquired wealth on his own destructive lifestyle and reminisces on his history of homelessness and petty crime. “Tell Your Friends” is a very interesting piece of music from Abel. The track reveals parts of his life many would criticise, but with a sense of shamelessness that is admirable in addition to sounding incredibly cool and sexy.
Often – 7/10
More than a year from its release, “Often” sounds dated to many of Abel’s fans, and would perhaps have better been left off the album. Alternatively, if Abel was using old tracks, he could and should have also replaced one of the boring deeper cuts on this album with the bombastic “King Of The Fall.” For what it’s worth, “Often” is still a solid track, one of the most attractive on the album. Beginning with a sample of 1970s Turkish poetry, one immediately has to realize they’re in for something different. Abel immediately contrasts the message of that original poem by expressing his desire for a threesome, the opposite of loneliness. The rest of the track is distinctly sexual, impressively so, and is one of the better cuts on this album. Ben Billions comes through with a crisp, ethereal beat that suits Abel’s voice perfectly. “Often” might have been the best song on the album had it been released a month ago rather than a year ago.
The Hills – 7.5/10
Another sex-driven song, “The Hills” depicts Abel’s relationship with a girl living in Beverly Hills, with the first verse revealing that her boyfriend is away on a promotion tour and that he’s driving to her house low-key. This short verse segues into a powerful hook about the lack of emotion in this relationship, and that she is only his partner when in the act. This song contains a shot at the fans that want Abel to relapse into the sound he propagated on his mixtape Trilogy, which he considers akin to relapsing back into the deep depression he was in when he made those songs. The Amharic at the end of the song is an interesting motif, with a female voice reciting “I love you very much/My beautiful, I love you very much/My love, love, love, love/My love, love, love, love.” The production keeps up with Abel’s tempo, the heavy bass drop before each hook one of the musical highlights of this album.
Acquainted – 5.5/10
Originally titled “Girls Born In The 90s,” “Acquainted” represents the challenge posed to Abel in the wake of his transition to poppier, more mainstream music. Abel encounters a woman that is representative of the music industry, with whom he desires but doesn’t explicitly need, while his friends warn him to stay true to himself (or his older music). He’s putting in more time with this woman, and beginning to fall in love. Whilst this dichotomy between pop music and this new woman in his life (Abel is rumoured to be dating Bella Hadid) is enjoyable, “Acquainted” consisted of forgettable delivery and melodies. Backed only by soporific production, which admittedly becomes more dark and interesting in the outro. The message of “Acquainted” may be seminal in Abel’s story, and that may well be all the track is remembered for.
Can’t Feel My Face – 8/10
That standout hit of Beauty Behind The Madness, “Can’t Feel My Face” is the most impressive pop effort Abel has offered so far, drawing praise from critics and comparisons to Michael Jackson, one of his own idols. While personifying drugs as a woman, or equally emblematizing a woman as a drug has to be one of the most overdone clichés in music history, this song evades being pigeonholed into such a category. In a similar vein to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” which turned an anti-alcohol statement into a drinking anthem, “Can’t Feel My Face” illustrates the numbingness and potentially lethal aspects of cocaine, but wraps it in a poppy, accessible and upbeat track that people will actually snort coke to. “Can’t Feel My Face” is strongly redolent of Michael Jackson himself, but manages to be fresh and relevant despite borrowing from an artist that defined the 1980s.
Shameless – 6/10
“Shameless” acts as a sort of inverted “Wicked Games,” in which Abel gives into his own compassion and shamelessly supports the girl. However, narcotic references throughout this song skew this initial deduction. As being there for her in this context could mean supplying her with drugs, creating a sense of sinister ambiguity. This track is one of the more lyrically lazy cuts on Beauty Behind The Madness. The Wheezy-produced track is also rather dull from an instrumental viewpoint, at least until the end of the track when the electric guitar is brought in.
Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey) – 3/10
My heart sank when I saw “Earned It” on the official tracklist for this album. Not only does it irreparably damage the cohesion and feel of Beauty Behind The Madness, “Earned It” was never that brilliant of a song to begin with. The song lacks personality, its instrumental is, while nerve-tingling, ultimately lacking in emotion and crescendo, and moreover it fails to fully stretch Abel’s vocal talents to their known capabilities. “Earned It” doesn’t just beat “Often” for the most out-of-place track on this album, it smashes it out of the park.
In The Night – 7.5/10
Undoubtedly the truest Michael Jackson bite on this album, “In The Night” looks set to be the third major hit song on this album. It’s a welcome change of pace from the sluggish instrumentals of “Shameless” and “Earned It,” but the subject material is characteristically heavy. “In The Night’s” frenzied, Billy Jean-esque production and cadence are heavily at odds with the lyrics of a numbed prostitute plagued by the memories of a vicious sexual assault in her childhood, seeking paid sex as a masochistic release from her dark past. It’s odd that both of this album’s standout Top 40 tracks have such serious, weighty subject matter, using glitzy production and flows to repackage such difficult conversation points. “In The Night” will be criticised for imitating Michael Jackson excessively, and it doesn’t stretch Abel’s vocal range very far, but it’s a very interesting sound to hear on an album in 2015.
As You Are – 5/10
“As You Are” showcases Abel’s conflicting attitudes towards love in two verses, going from seeing something no-one else sees in this girl and taking her in with all of her imperfections and flaws, before reverting to his old ways and rejecting the very idea of a relationship, then later falling for her again and asking her to take him with all his flaws. This song, as a lyrical concept, is bromidic, and when backed by such uninteresting production and such a weak hook, should be grateful that it is salvaged by such a wonderful outro, backed by ethereal repetition of the words “As I Am.”
Dark Times (Feat. Ed Sheeran) – 5.5/10
Though Ed Sheeran is rather abhorrent as an artist in his own right, many listeners have been pleasantly surprised at how well the pair combine. Indeed, both artists come from relatively similar backgrounds, both citing depression and homelessness as main influences on their music. The lyrics in “Dark Times” are emotive and deeply introspective, Abel and Sheeran even trading passionate lines in the third verse. Unfortunately, such passion is let down once again by lethargic production, a theme fast-becoming ever too present on the deep cuts in Beauty Behind The Madness. Just because it’s an Ed Sheeran collaboration doesn’t mean we have to have a guitar, and the ripple that occurs midway through the first line of the chorus throws the listener off like nothing else on this album. With a feature like Ed Sheeran, “Dark Times” had the potential to be much more.
Prisoner (Feat. Lana Del Rey) – 8/10
“Prisoner” became one of this album’s most hotly-anticipated songs after it leaked that Lana Del Rey would feature on it. Owing to Abel being the sort of bad boy Lana croons about, and Lana being the sort of naïve young woman Abel croons about. The pair of them speak on being a prisoner to their addictions, Abel’s being love, and Lana’s being Hollywood. In both cases, their addictions strip their very essence of being away, but neither of them can handle living without the rush that such addictions provide. Lana’s breathy vocals also give us a damning outro, in which she concedes that her dreams are being crushed by the realities of Hollywood. While the Ed Sheeran collaboration was surprisingly good, Abel and Lana are a perfect fit. Lana shines as the best feature on the album by far. We are even given a smoothly melodic outro delivered perfectly by “Lizzy.” Euphonic production wraps all of their vocal talents in a brilliantly synthetic package.
Angel (Feat. Maty Noyes) – 5.5/10
“Angel” serves as the bombastic finale to Beauty Behind The Madness, in which Abel decides to let go of his suitably-angelic girl so that she can find a real lover. With the pure, untouched female co-existing with the clear-cut sinner that Abel embodies, it is at this point that the phrase Beauty Behind The Madness becomes clear. Maty Noyes comes in during the final chorus to act as the angel and does a stellar job. Many lines from The Weeknd here are very reminiscent of many Drake flows, similar to songs like the “My Way” remix. The only issue with “Angel” is that it tries to be more than it can be. Abel can’t reach the vocal heights that such a rhapsodic instrumental demands and the lyrics, while impressive coming from Abel, still aren’t enough.
Beauty Behind The Madness was always going to be judged on the success of its poppier-moments. While fans may bemoan such a change in direction, Abel’s brand of pop is anything if generic. Much of the sound of this album is brooding, intensifying stadium-pop backed by gargantuan strings. This is great progression, and while it may not entirely be enough for someone like me, one can never deplore a bold new musical direction. I doubt we will ever see another House Of Balloons. Having stated in interviews that seeing the world took him out of the depression that resulted in the music of the Trilogy era, Beauty Behind The Madness is only the beginning of this new chapter. However, there are several moments in Beauty Behind The Madness where this new direction falls flat on its face. Abel himself is too much of a husk to effectively and convincingly convey many of the realer emotions that characterise many of the songs on this album. There are far too many instances of dull production for this album to stand up to the sound of Trilogy, and the unnecessary inclusion of “Often” and “Earned It” feel like a bit of a piss-take. I don’t wish this was another House Of Balloons, but I wish it was on that level. It would appear that The Weeknd has gone from giving us albums full of truly unique music to an album with maybe 30% of these qualities. I have no doubt in my mind that Beauty Behind The Madness will be a successful album among old and new fans alike, but it will never be my favourite Weeknd album.
This album gets a 6.4 for its efforts.
Best tracks: Tell Your Friends, Can’t Feel My Face, Prisoner (Feat. Lana Del Rey).
Worst Tracks: Earned It (Fifty Shades Of Grey), Losers (Feat. Labrinth), Dark Times (Feat. Ed Sheeran).