Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beauty Behind the Madness | The Weeknd



The mainstream crossover of Canadian singer-songwriter-producer The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) was one that nobody predicted, but one that we probably should have counted on a while ago. A chameleon of pop, R&B, and everything in between, the Weeknd has thrived on critical acclaim and viral success for years now, but it wasn't until last year that contemporary hit radio listeners got a taste of his butter-smooth vocals on "Love Me Harder," a collaboration with Ariana Grande. To continue radio dominance, he followed up with "Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)," "The Hills," and the number single "Can't Feel My Face," all of which come from his sophomore studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness.

"Earned It," one of his two contributions for the soundtrack companion to Fifty Shades of Grey that long outlived the hype for the movie itself, receives some minor intro and outro edits for its inclusion on this album, but it still seems slightly out of place. It's sexy, but in a different right than most of the other material here. Overt references to sex and drugs are the cornerstones of his lyricism - on "Tell Your Friends," he says upfront, "I'm that n****r with the hair singing 'bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill" - but "Earned It" is without. The Michael Jackson-evoking "Can't Feel My Face" is also a clear stab at the concealment of explicit themes in a radio-friendly packaging; the song's lyrics seem harmlessly confusing unless the listener knows the effects of cocaine.

Just like the Trilogy mixtape collection and debut album Kiss Land, Beauty Behind the Madness is packed end-to-end with smutty electro-PBR&B at its finest. Despite a few shake-ups of his signature style (see: "Can't Feel My Face" or the acoustic dedication "Shameless"), the Weeknd delivers as expected. Songs like "The Hills," on which the Weeknd half-moans about a haphazard relationship that thrives on lust instead of love before the song blooms into bass-filled chorus, and the glitched-out Labrinth collaboration "Loners," one of the livelier offerings in his discography, are exactly what the doctor ordered.  We get a handful of X-rated moments (in particular, I can side-eye "Often" and "The Hills"), but we also get a few dead-serious, emotionally-charged ones, as well. "In the Night" is a Max Martin-produced highlight that tells the chilling story of a woman who strips to numb the pain of her childhood molestation, and the fragile closing track "Angel" signifies the moment when it is time to break off a relationship for the greater good of both parties. (The latter's outro, which features an airy children's choir and Maty Noyes, is a must-hear.)

So, who better to call in for this whole hazy, sultry affair than Lana Del Rey? Her attitude is not stripped away on the slow-burning "Prisoner." She sings of the death of her soul in Hollywood and has a spoken word outro that is very much Lana: "I don't know. I get so wrapped up in a world where nothing's as it seems, and real life is stranger than my dreams." But who worse to reel in for a collaboration than Ed Sheeran? The apple of every soccer mom's eye, Sheeran seems like an unlikely candidate to be thrown on this album. His contribution to the album, "Dark Times," is much more an Ed Sheeran song than a Weeknd song; I really wish the boy would have left the acoustic guitar at home for this one.

As expected, Beauty Behind the Madness consists of alluring vocals and immersive alternative R&B productions, with a spritz of moments that make listeners ask themselves, "Was that borderline misogynistic or just unnecessarily raunchy?" His identity and vision have not been shaken by success; not even his collaborations with production giant Max Martin are without that unique touch. If the title were posed as a question, the album would be the answer: there is a hell of a lot of beauty that stems from the Weeknd's world of madness.

Beauty Behind the Madness will be released on August 28, 2015 under Republic Records and XO.

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