Five years and what amounts to five studio albums worth of releases into The Weeknd’s career, and on Beauty Behind The Madness he finally unleashes the fully unhinged hedonist pop star character that he’s so carefully cultivated. 65 minutes after listening through the release, you may have accidentally overdosed after being exposed to the contact high from the album’s druggy lyrical content. Or, if still able to feel your face, you’re definitely still likely to be completely bowled over by the work done by not just The Weeknd as a vocalist, but a top tier crew of producers, arrangers, songwriters and engineers on the release. In reaching out and grabbing every pop sound that’s been successful in the past half-century of mainstream pop, rolling it tightly in a blunt and setting them ablaze with Abel Tesfaye’s sonorous vocals, this release gets much higher than most anything else released in 2015.
The “beauty behind the madness” to which this album is referring is that The Weeknd has seemingly succeeded in seamlessly integrating his stage persona with his personal life. On “Tell Your Friends” — Kanye West and Che Pope’s Gamble and Huff-style seductive soul ode to girls spreading rumors about hanging out with The Weeknd — The Weeknd actually croons, “I’m that nigga with the hair singing ‘bout popping pills, fucking bitches, and living a life so trill.” When it comes to this album, if Trey Songz “Invented Sex” in 2009, six years later The Weeknd has patented it. It may be worth actually listening to all 14 tracks on this album to note just how many times The Weeknd croons about copulation. In being a number that’s more than the number of times he swallows ecstasy but certainly less than the times he snorts cocaine, the art of tireless love making is certainly a creative trope upon which this album treads often.
And yes, as aforementioned, there’s the cocaine use. On this album, it’s so prevalent that if Republic Records had the temerity to replace the disco era moon face with a spoonful of cocaine going up its nose from Studio 54 with Abel Tesfaye’s visage as the album’s cover art, it wouldn’t be too crazy of a notion. “I Can’t Feel My Face” allows pop songwriter/producer extraordinaire Max Martin to remake Michael Jackson’s disco hit “Off The Wall” and make it into a cheeky ode to doing Tony Montana in Scarface levels of blow in the presence of a lovely lady. To some that may be highly sacrilegious. However, in feeling like the extrapolation of the “take your nose off my keyboard” line from Drake and The Weeknd’s 2011 collaboration “Crew Love,” it’s a fine “Part II” of that well-regarded instant classic. Thus, the song is both danceable and majestic.
This album also works because, as a cohesive whole, it’s every bit the sum of its parts. These parts — which include The UK pop crooner Ed Sheeran and soul as pop’s most decadent Marilyn Monroe-esque leading lady Lana Del Ray — may initially seem off-putting, but are surprisingly effective. Sheeran turns the MIke Dean produced tale of a violent altercation “Dark Times” into some sort of rap-meets-outlaw country epic, his weathered tone recalling Johnny Cash-level darkness. As well, Del Ray appears here on “Prisoner” and blends entirely too well with The Weeknd. Our star protagonist produced this one too, and Del Ray’s performance, in particular, makes this track Grammy worthy. In short, these two artists blending with The Weekend’s artistic ethos is a license to print money.
Speaking of Grammys, 2015 should be a big year for The Weeknd because of already released pop chart dominators on this album like 50 Shades of Gray soundtrack-featured hit “Earned It,” which may be producer Jason Quenneville’s breakout moment. The drums stabbing through the string-laden melody and deep into the bassline definitely have a sense of BDSM-style impact, which take The Weeknd’s lyrics about “caring for” a “perfect” lady to an intensely twisted emotional space.
But as always when discussing all things The Weeknd, it’s in his work with Illangelo that he’s best showcased. “Losers,” “Acquainted,” and current single “The Hills” (on which Illangelo’s credited with Million $ Mano) indeed represent some of the best overall work on an album which consistently packs an amazing punch. The cadence and style of the bassline for “Losers” switches every eight bars and the melody features instruments falling into and out of either each other or thin air. “Acquainted” is a piano trap ballad, and “The Hills” feels similar to so many swirling and shimmering trap ballads in the mainstream at present, but it’s the layering of The Weeknd’s vocals here that truly elevates the production.
The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness opens with “Real Life,” a ballad set over haunting synths in which The Weeknd sings that “every woman he loves, he pushes away.” It closes with “Angel,” a lovelorn yarn that’s the closest thing to a lyrical and stylistic attempt at recreating Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that soul music’s ever heard. In and of itself, that’s impressive. In the middle, pop superstars like producer Max Martin and Grammy beloved artists like Lana Del Ray and Ed Sheeran create terrific songs within The Weeknd’s bizarre drug, sex-addicted universe. This isn’t an album as much as it is a burgeoning pop epic that’s likely to develop into something more ostentatious. Beauty Behind The Madness is The Weeknd’s superstar coming out party.