After the vaguely muted response to his 2013 sophomore album Kiss Land, it appears that The Weeknd took a very active role in the course of his career. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated that he wants to become the biggest pop star in the world, and his CV in the two years between albums is evidence of that. Popping up on the soundtracks to Fifty Shades Of Grey, Southpaw and The Hunger Games, appearing on hit singles with Ariana Grande, Sia, Diplo and Disclosure, and culminating in ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, one of the best pop songs of 2015.
However, while that be the way it may seem to the general public, this isn’t exactly the case, as the singles for this album have been appearing since July of last year. ‘Often’ and ‘The Hills’, both released prior to ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, represent The Weeknd of old; drowning in moody atmospherics, still depressed at the amount of women who are willing to have sex with him. It’s a massive disconnect that hinders Beauty Behind The Madness from becoming one whole, cohesively great album, instead of two good but very disparate halves.
On the poppier side of things, we have The Weeknd gearing up to become this generation’s Michael Jackson, and not falling too far short of the mark. Getting the likes of Max Martin involved was a stroke of genius, but anyone expecting a Timbaland-fuelled, Nelly Furtado-esque career 180 should brace themselves; Martin only appears on two tracks, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and the even more MJ-alike ‘In The Night’ (the latter even seems to pay homage to/swipe wholesale from ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’). Both songs possess instantly catchy hooks and peerless production, but both have a barely-there, gossamer-thin level between text and subtext, dealing with the incredibly dark subject matters of cocaine addiction and childhood sexual abuse, respectively. Martin’s influence has bled out on to other tracks that he doesn’t have a hand in, too; the Kanye West-produced ‘Tell Your Friends’ sounds like an accidentally excised highlight from The College Dropout, Labrinth brings out one of the few rays of sunshine on ‘Losers’, while trading war stories over a pounding beat with Lana Del Rey on ‘Prisoner’ proves to be a particular highlight as the pair are clearly a melodramatic match made in heaven.
Then there’s the other half of the album, the part where The Weeknd wants to complain about a life of untrustworthy females that he uses for sex and drops unceremoniously, pleading with them and us that he’s unworthy of their love and our adoration. That self-pitying cliché of “There must be something wrong with you if you like me!” might have been cute when he was an unknown quantity a few years back, but it just won’t fly anymore now that you’re topping the Billboard Charts. Something similar was attempted by Drake on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and it too similarly failed. It’s not that moody, self-serving alt-R’n’B is inherently unlikable – just check out FKA Twigs’ recent effort M3LL155X for evidence – but the subsequent lyrical nature of dealing with the sexual, emotional gutter (“Who’s gonna fuck you like me? / I don’t want to hurt you but you love the pain” on ‘Shameless’) or the soulless nature of women only in love with him because he’s famous (“I’m coming to bitches coming right / You got me touching on your body / To say that we’re in love is dangerous” on ‘Acquanited’) is a major turn-off. Even the Ed Sheeran duet ‘Dark Times’ starts off with a drunken bar brawl and contains the line “This ain’t the right time for you to fall in love with me”; the level of self-loathing is practically toxic. And what do all of these downer buzz songs have in common? They’re either produced solely by The Weeknd, or with his Trilogy album co-producer Illangelo.
When left to his own devices, The Weeknd would seem to much rather just sit around and sulk, but when he allows some of his new friends in to his playpen of depression, they almost uniformly bring out the best in him. On opening track ‘Real Life’, he dictates to us “I’m better off when I’m by myself.” Beauty Behind The Madness is testimony to how incorrect that statement is. You want to be the biggest star in the world? Then you need to lighten up.