The man born Abel Tesfaye began his career as a mystery. His first mixtape, House of Balloons, was released for free on his website in March of 2011. The tape was as gritty and dark as Tesfaye’s voice was angelic, its sex appeal came with a sidelong threat of violence. The combination was arresting; every corner of the music world perked up its ears. MTV called it the best album of the year. It got a co-sign from Drake. In the months that followed, he released two more free mixtapes, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, both of which dug even deeper into Tesfaye’s seedy, confessional world. Curiosity about who, exactly, The Weeknd was skyrocketed, fueled by Tesfaye’s initial refusal to give any press interviews or even show his face.
Eventually, of course, the mystery ended. By the time The Weeknd’s first studio album, Kiss Land, came out in the fall of 2013, he had signed to a major label (Republic) and formed his own imprint (XO). He performed at Drake’s OVO fest. The blank space in our popular imagining of him was replaced with Tesfaye’s now-iconic towering hair.
But Tesfaye still hadn’t quite reached pop star status, in part because he always seemed to intentionally quarantine himself on the darkest fringes of R&B. That changes with Beauty Behind the Madness, his second studio album, out today. The Weeknd is definitively a pop star now. The album’s first single, "Can’t Feel My Face," landed him in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time ever. One listen to the song — plus the fact that hit-single-factory Max Martin produced it — makes it clear that this was The Weeknd’s plan all along. "Can’t Feel My Face" has an actual hook (The Weeknd usually settles for a post-coital whimper), and Tesfaye’s normally subdued vocals gallop through the song like he’s panting for airplay. The song made its live debut at Apple's WWDC in June, surrounded by men talking about the future of music who probably didn’t know who he was in 2011.
Anonymity to ubiquity
So the mystery is gone. But the initial lure of The Weeknd was the way he (and his music) lurked in the shadows. When he was still anonymous, Tesfaye created a persona: a man who stays at the club 'til it closes and then some, but never dances. A man who lives in a world populated by dozens of dead-eyed women who can match him pound for pound when it comes to drug use, but only when they’re not trying to fuck him. He’s strange and solitary, but he’s almost never alone. The Weeknd is a character actor — he plays villains, tortured souls, and guys who sleep 'til noon in luxury hotel rooms, and he does it with a deranged sincerity. He sings about sex with blunt anatomical correctness and describes drugs like they’re medicine. All Tesfaye’s vices were out there for all to see, with very little in the way of justification. But on Beauty Behind the Madness, fueled by his newfound popularity, The Weeknd tries to convince us the world he’s lived in for years is more complex than we originally thought.
The album’s opening track is "Real Life"; it begins with a warped guitar that sounds like an emergency alarm going off in a factory. The production is slick, the synths warbling. Tesfaye sounds apologetic, but resigned: "Mama called me destructive / Said it’d ruin me one day / Cause every woman that loved me / I seem to push them away." In the very next song, "Losers," a jazzy track with a keyboard backbone, the UK singer Labrinth reminds listeners that "stupid’s next to ‘I love you.’" That’s followed up with the Kanye West-produced "Tell Your Friends." The song is classic Tesfaye: cymbals lead the percussion, his vocals are near-perfect, and it doesn’t even seem like he’s trying. The premise of the song is classic Tesfaye, too; lackadaisically encouraging his conquests to brag to their friends that they had sex with him.
The Weeknd approaches everything straight on, with no hint of subtlety
This kind of emotional jockeying seems insane, largely because The Weeknd approaches everything straight on, with no hint of subtlety. In The Weeknd’s world, women are either one-dimensional (keepers of the pussy) or evil (destroyers of the dick), but Tesfaye positions himself as anything he wants to be, and he wants to be a man with secrets. As listeners, we’re meant to be intrigued by these secrets, even if their basis in reality is unclear. Beauty Behind the Madness is not thematically complex, but The Weeknd has shaped its setting (dark, drunk) so that we might think it is. Tesfaye wants us to confuse memoir for metaphor.
But mainstream pop has always relied on metaphor and double entendre, and Tesfaye finds ways to work it into his more PG-13 material. "Earned It," a track with so much grinding percussion it hurts your teeth, was on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Lana Del Rey appears on a track to call herself a "prisoner of addiction" — a line that makes you wonder why The Weeknd hasn’t collaborated with her before. And then there’s Ed Sheeran, the male Little Orphan Annie, who really couldn’t be anything but out of place on "Dark Times," despite co-writing the track. (Sheeran singing about his "dark times" seems laughable in the inimitably dark after-hours world The Weeknd lives in.)
There are times when The Weekend hammers at his self-imposed narrative so incessantly it’s almost goofy. Take "Acquainted," a murky club insta-hit with a chorus that includes the line, "To say we’re in love is dangerous, but girl I’m so glad we’re acquainted." It’s one of the best songs on Beauty Behind the Madness, but that sentiment, and specifically the use of "acquainted," is funny, because what he really means is fucking. If the song had been a 2011 Thursday cut, he might have just said "fucking." "Often," a slow jam that’s been out for more than a year already, is literally about having sex "often." That’s also funny. But Tesfaye is so unwavering, it’s hard to believe both tracks aren’t at least a little tongue-in-cheek.
On Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd reshapes his sound for the shiny masses, but conserves his nihilistic sensibility for the dirty underground. If he’s trying to convince the masses they belong there too, he’ll have to be a little more forthcoming. But The Weeknd really is a pop star now, and pop stars can only go so dark.