Listening to the radio late last year/early this year, you might have noticed a somewhat fresh face, The Weeknd. After appearing on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack with “Earned It” and collaborating with Ariana Grande on “Love Me Harder,” The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) has gone through a serious stylistic change. Instead of making the dark and moody R&B tracks he became initially famous for, he’s taking bits and pieces of that original sound (seen on Trilogy) and making them more mainstream-friendly.
However, while this risk seen on Beauty Behind the Madness seems to have paid off in popularity, with two songs off this album, “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills”, recently reaching to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and this album selling 412,000 equivalent sales first week, did it pay off artistically?
Honestly, that answer is hard to say, as there are some really great songs on here, where Weeknd is able to turn his classic sound into some radio-friendly pop smashes, but there’s some truly awful songs here, especially in the second half, and the good to great songs being thrown into the first half. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an album where the drop off in quality is so drastic and continues to get worse. Let’s focus in on this relatively good first half though.
We start off with “Real Life,” which I hated at first for its corny lyrics and fake string instrumentation, but I’ve since grown to like it. It just has an endearing quality to it. On “Losers” (which features Labrinth, who’s signed to former American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s label, Syco), we get some great singing from Tesfaye, fantastic production, and a great feature from Labrinth, who also produced the track with Tesfaye and his long-time producer Illangelo.
The next track, “Tell Your Friends” features a fantastic soul sample thanks to producers Kanye West and Che Pope as Tesfaye croons about his past life and his current plans, which is changing from the mysterious enigma to the one of the biggest pop star in the world.
That’s one of the things that’s changed up a bit on this new album compared to Tesfaye’s previous works. He is a lot more confident on these songs as he finally seems to be in a good place in his life thanks to a change in direction in his music. Turns out success can breed happiness after all.
Anyways, onto “Often”, which while one of the best tracks on the album, definitely shows a flaw in the album in how it’s put together, as it’s all over the place. While overall we do get mostly mainstream-friendly pop tracks with a dark edge, the album isn’t very cohesive and can’t always find a singular tone. The subject matter is very monotonous (lots of songs about sex and drugs), but the production is all over the place as you get an odd mix of pseudo-symphonies, soul-sample loops, and trap-flavored beats that gives the listener a lot of variety that’s not well-placed.
As I mentioned earlier with the trap-flavored beats, we see these fruition on “The Hills” and “Acquainted,” two of the best songs on the album, as they’re just flat out bangers. These are songs that will slow down a party in a good way and let things get a little wild and dirty, especially the last minute or so of “Acquainted,” which features some really atmospheric production thanks to the stellar drum machines, vocal sampling, and synths.
However, going from these trap songs to “Can’t Feel My Face”, produced by pop superstar writer/producer Max Martin, is a bit of a rough transition as going from down and dirty trap-R&B to clean, Michael Jackson influenced pop messes up the flow. However, both songs are great in their own ways, as this song is extremely catchy and shows that Tesfaye can make extremely good mainstream pop.
Then we get to “Shameless,” which as far as I can tell is the last good song on the album despite it still suffering from tonal issues from the rest of the album, as it’s a more acoustic track (similar to “Rolling Stone” off of Trilogy) that’s probably one of the best songs Tesfaye has ever written, as it’s a bleak comparison of his previous work, going from careless to compassionate, despite his ego.
Now onto what I consider the second half of the album, which features six consistently mediocre tracks, starting off with “Earned It,” which really should not be on this album as it feels so tacked on since it was Tesfaye’s first big solo single. While this track probably worked perfectly in 50 Shades of Grey, it’s extremely out of place on this album as the orchestral production only really fits with “Real Life,” and just barely at that.
I don’t like saying that artists sold out, but this was The Weeknd’s first big sell-out single. Doesn’t really hurt that The Weeknd knows this and delivers the lyrics like he was at the end of a coke high (which probably is the case looking into previous albums and what we know about his personal life).
While I consider Max Martin to basically be pop music Jesus, he doesn’t always come through as “In The Night” features awfully corny lyrics and delivery and synth-pop production that seems to have been made in auto-pilot. “As You Are” is just flat-out dull with the only thing keeping me awake are the awful kick drum which is way into the foreground. Both this track and “In The Night” come off as distinctively filler material, just trying to pad out the tracklisting for no reason, with “As You Are” going on for way too long, clocking in at 5:40.
If you thought the last track was dull, I hope you’re ready to pass out or either swoon (depending on what music you usually listen to) to “Dark Times”, which is a duet with British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who actually doesn’t sound too bad on this song, however the production is dull with a slow and drooling beat that tries to mix a simple drum machine beat with electric guitars that just makes me want to pass out from how boring the song is. Surely, the song does bring upon some dark times.
Speaking of ironic titles, “Prisoner” features Lana Del Ray as Tesfaye croons over a sluggish trap-influenced beat and Del Ray playing the perfect compliment to the Weeknd’s character. She’s the naive party girl he’s always singing about and he’s the bad boy she’s always singing about. It should be a match made in heaven but Del Ray sounds extremely bored and Tesfaye croons his hardest but can’t come off as convincing with the monotonous subject matter that works in the first half but becomes overexposed by this time.
After how boring these last few tracks were, I needed a good laugh and “Angel” definitely delivers as for some reason Tesfaye thought it’d be a good idea to put a cheesy power ballad from the 1980s at the end of his album, complete with grandiose production (including a children’s choir at one point!) and awfully written metaphors about angels and wings, singing about letting go of an angelic girl. While epic in scale, the tracks falls flat on its face for the pure amount of cheese presented in the track, like an entire dairy farm’s worth of cheese. Just laughably terrible.
And so, that’s Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd’s venture into mainstream-pop that results in mostly disappointment. The nosedive in quality after “Shameless” is well, quite shameful, as I do believe that the Weeknd can make some great mainstream pop music without sacrificing his signature sound, which he does almost completely on the second half. The production just suddenly goes from great to mediocre and because of that, the Weeknd’s flaws with his songwriting and singing show themselves. I really want to like this album more, but it’s looking like the Weeknd forgot how to make a consistently good project in 2011.