The influence of The Weeknd cannot be underestimated over the last couple of years. There’s been a new wave of sad, emotional R&B songs - full of moody, futuristic synths, slow tempos and plaintive lyrics – coming from a range of artists and permeating the charts. That’s as much down to The Weeknd and his three mixtapes released in 2011, as it is the likes of Drake or Frank Ocean.
Except The Weeknd (a.k.a Abel Tesfaye) released his mixtapes for free, his music remaining largely underground until he was picked up by Universal in 2012, who subsequently re-released them in the album ‘Trilogy’. 2013’s follow up ‘Kiss Land’ proved an awkward major label debut, his edgy sound smoothed and polished as he dipped his toes into the waters of more chart-friendly material. That’s a trajectory that only continues with ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, an album that feels a little uncomfortable despite flashes of brilliance.
Since ‘Kiss Land’, Tesfaye has thrown himself into the world of pop: he featured on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder, as well as two film soundtracks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and 50 Shades of Grey). ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, accordingly, sees Tesfaye working with a number of popular collaborators. Losers includes additional vocals from Labrinth, whilst Dark Times features Ed Sheeran, and Prisoner features Lana Del Rey. Tell Your Friends, meanwhile, is pure Kanye West and is crying out for a rap verse. No doubt Tesfaye is soon destined to become a household name, especially as his music is best suited to his own yearning, cooing falsetto rather than the voices of others.
The album is actually at its best when pop is wholeheartedly embraced, providing some development in Tesfaye’s sound as he warps familiar R&B tropes. Earned It will be familiar to anyone who’s seen 50 Shades (so, the whole population), but better still As You Are is a twist on typical slow jams, Can’t Feel My Face sees him tackling dance music (resulting in one of the tracks of the year and, fittingly, the only track without an 'explicit' marking) and In The Night is a shuffling, bubbling slice of synth-pop. These tracks simply aren’t what you’d expect from this artist and offer an enjoyable surprise - it’s fitting that the latter two were produced by Max Martin, pop’s great hitmaker. ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ is a far more positive collection of songs than Tesfaye has ever released; as his A&R recently stated in an interview, “Sometimes humans feel good and want to dance, and so does Abel”.
Yet despite this positive stylistic movement, Tesfaye continues to cling desperately to his past. The triptych of Often, The Hills and Acquainted sound all too familiar – menacing synths, trap-influenced beats – that simply don’t match the creativity of his past material (namely ‘House of Balloons’). His newfound popularity has long since polished the edge from his sound and, as Can’t Feel My Face proves, it’s time he accepted this and moved on.
The same goes for his lyrics. His unique brand of gritty x-rated storytelling laced with sex, drugs and misogyny found an obvious home in the moody noir sounds of his earliest work. Here, he continues to sing this narrative (as on Tell Your Friends: “I’m that nigga with the hair, singing ‘bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill”), but it feels at odds with his new pop aesthetic. Clearly there remains a tension in his music between hip-hop, R&B and pop, yet rather than pushing genre boundaries, ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ feels too confused to be coherent.
* Can't Feel My Face
* In The Night
* As You Are
Listen: 'Beauty Behind The Madness' is available now.