In the past year Abel Tesfaye, who began releasing mixtapes of murky R&B as The Weeknd in 2011, has pulled off a number of prime pop coups. First came a collaboration with American megastar Ariana Grande (‘Love Me Harder’), then there was a Top Five hit with ‘Earned It’, written for Fifty Shades Of Grey, 2015’s sixth-highest-grossing film. July brought an onstage appearance with Taylor Swift during her ‘1989’ world tour. But The Weeknd’s most blatant assault on the mainstream came in June with the release of the fantastic ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, a Michael Jackson-aping club banger that reached the Top Five in seven countries and has amassed more than 65 million plays on YouTube to date. Stevie Wonder sang a snippet of it onstage in New York earlier this month. It’s one of three platinum singles (along with ‘Often’ and ‘The Hills’) already released from ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, the follow-up to Tesfaye’s 2013 major label debut ‘Kiss Land’.
So, flanked by A-list guests including Lana Del Rey, Kanye West and a miserable-sounding Ed Sheeran, is this album the grand statement that marks Tesfaye’s unveiling as a pop star proper?
Not quite. It’s immediately clear the 25-year-old hasn’t forgotten where he came from, and the druggy, depressed haze that engulfed his 2011 mixtape trilogy – ‘House Of Balloons’, ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes Of Silence’ – still hangs around. The best tracks are those recorded with fellow Torontonian Illangelo, who worked on all three tapes. Guest vocals from East London R&B singer Labrinth – a rare non-talent show signing to Simon Cowell’s label Syco – are swamped in gloopy production and piano-funk on ‘Losers’. Hinging on a huge, distorted bassline, grimy confessional ‘The Hills’ has Tesfaye drugged up and emotionally raw (“When I’m fucked up/That’s the real me”) before reaching a paranoid conclusion when he repeats “The hills have eyes/The hills have eyes”.
On the glossy ‘Prisoner’ he offers up more of this dark, twisted fare (“I’m a prisoner to my addiction/I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold”) before Lana Del Rey picks at familiar wounds (“I think I’ve been in Hollywood too long/’Cause I can feel my soul burning/Feel it burning slow”). Even the skippy disco rhythm on ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ – by far the poppiest thing here – is counterbalanced by self-destructive lyrics (“And I know she’ll get the best of me/The worst is yet to come”). All this is testament to the fact that Tesfaye remains at his best when he’s at his worst; like Leonard Cohen with an 808.
As well as the misery, he’s also retained the explicit lyrics that characterised ‘Kiss Land’. On ‘Often’ he sounds like R Kelly on Viagra, spoiling a track that’s seductive enough on its own with lines like “Baby I can make that pussy rain often”. The pounding, orchestral ‘Tell Your Friends’ (co-produced with Kanye West) similarly sullies an industrial-strength beat with lyrics that come off as tasteless, even for The Weeknd (“Pussy on the house/Everybody fuckin’”).
Such moments eclipse Tesfaye’s clever gothic flair and, by extension, are at total odds with the pop packaging of this record. He may have softened his edge, upped the production and pulled in the stars, but The Weeknd remains an outsider.
- Director: The Weeknd, Kanye West, Illangelo, Che Pope, Carl Marshall, Omar Riad, Robert Holmes, Quenneville, Ben ’Billions’ Diehl, Mano, Martin, Payami, Wheezy, Moccio, Mike Dean
- Record label: XO/Republic
- Release date: 28 Aug, 2015