Living in Toronto during the months and weeks leading up to the 2013 release of his studio debut Kiss Land, it was almost impossible to envision Abel Tesfaye living up to the unbelievable level of hype he’d accumulated with his brilliant mixtape trilogy nearly two years prior.
Kiss Land wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it felt like a unrealized body of work that was trying too hard to capture the dark, moody R&B the 26-year-old singer popularized through his mixtapes. It almost felt like Tesfaye was only playing “The Weeknd” in some stretched out, drugged up sci-fi epic that ran an hour too long with a slew of inexplicable sex scenes.
The Weeknd’s new album and sophomore offering, Beauty Behind the Madness, not only exceeds its predecessor — it also pumps new life into one of the truly great voices of our time.
While it might lack the overall cinematic vision of Kiss Land, Beauty Behind the Madness focuses on the music and puts The Weeknd front and centre with his voice clear as day and not as some eerie distortion from down the hall. This time around, Tesfaye is out in the open for everyone to see and his new album shows him embracing his growing mainstream backing.
Part of The Weeknd’s new-found confidence and swagger is informed by the overall sound of the album which features production from proven hit-makers like Max Martin and Kanye West and young up-and-comers like Cali The Producer. The help pays off as The Weeknd has never sounded more commanding over beats that actually compliment his voice and let it thrive instead of drowning it out.
There are no more seven-minute tracks that appear on Kiss Land and the average song on Beauty Behind the Madness runs a smooth four minutes with every second serving a purpose. It’s the perfect amount of time to get hypnotized by the The Weeknd’s magnetic voice without debating whether or not you should skip to the next song.
Exiting the strange fantasy world of Kiss Land, it’s almost appropriate The Weeknd kicks of his second album with “Real Life”, which tackles past transgressions but at the same time sets a far more pop-oriented sound that is prevalent throughout Beauty Behind the Madness.
That more pop-oriented sound is nothing to be feared, however. There are moments on the album when The Weeknd really crosses the line into Michael Jackson territory. Granted, it’s a comparison we’ve heard far too often, but Jackson’s influence is especially strong on “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In The Night”. He conveys Jackson’s vocal angst and desperation while interpolating his own dark and sometimes disturbing subject matter. It’s Jackson reimagined for the loveless generation of Tinder soul-searchers in 2015.
But it’s truly a beautiful balance The Weeknd strikes. He can roam in the shadows on songs like “The Hills”, “Often” and “Prisoner” then switch things up and shine in the light on “Losers”, “Shameless” and “Earned It”. There’s something for every kind of Weeknd fan and even the songs that don’t fit his traditional sound are undeniably catchy and lush production-wise.
The Kanye-produced “Tell Your Friends” is another highlight that pushes Tesfaye into a new direction while staying true to his lyrical roots and there’s many of these examples on Beauty Behind the Madness. Many of the songs don’t even remotely resemble the ambiance of House of Balloons, such as the sure-to-be radio smash Ed Sheeran collaboration “Dark Times”, but it really doesn’t matter because the new polished and more radio-friendly sound still captivates in a way no other current R&B act really can.
Beauty Behind the Madness is a cohesive pop offering that stays consistently impressive all the way through. There are moments where it’s evident Tesfaye is still having growing pains breaking through to that upper echelon of music stardom but there’s no denying The Weeknd as an authentic pop entity who is no longer the indie R&B sensation he started as.
Get at me on Twitter @PatCwiklinski.