By Saeed Mohammed
Scarborough’s very own Abel Tesfaye—or The Weeknd as he is more popularly known—has made conscious choices of the new direction of his career. The goal is simple, as he states in a New York Times article, to become the biggest pop star on the planet.
The Weeknd sings in representation of the underground youth culture, where casual sex and drug experimentation are mainstays. Within the last year he has achieved unprecedented levels of commercial success, having dominated the airwaves with a handful of No.1 Billboard records, a certified Gold No.1 album and another sold out North American arena tour. His new album, “Beauty Behind the Madness”—the first project released after his delve into the mainstream “pop” world—shows us if the subject matter he’s relayed through his music previously has remained true.
The Weeknd’s first glimpse of real Billboard success brought about by “Love Me Harder”, a duet alongside Ariana Grande peaking at No.7 earlier this year on the Hot 100 list, initiated the employment of super-producer Max Martin. Having written and/ or produced hits after hits past and presently for just about every mega star in the music business, Martin became the go-to in Abel’s mainstream recipe. The hazy, dark sound The Weeknd has embodied over the years by singing of sexual encounters, an inability to love and drug experimentation was at the mercy of reconfiguration and to my pleasant surprise, has mostly remained in tact.
The album opens with “Real Life”, a song where Tesfaye’s first verse sings, “I’ll be the same, never changed for nothin’”, his earliest attempt at comforting fans in worry of any betrayal to the content of his music. The song continues with lyrics, “I heard love is a risk worth taking, I wouldn’t know, never been that boy” expressing the aversion of romantic emotional attachment that has been consistently voiced in his music.
The first quarter of the album includes songs like “Often” and “The Hills”, each Billboard hits on their own standings, but play to The Weeknd’s traditionally dark, less-love more-sex musical vocation especially with their production and lyrical content.
There is a noteworthy crack in the cement, content-wise, that follows these consistent kinds of records with track 6 on the album called “Acquainted”. This song describes his growing feelings for a woman as he sings, “nobody got me feeling this way”, and even affectionately croons “babe” several times; to the oldest fans’ understanding, a phrase that has noticeably never been said in his music before. Simultaneously, he attempts to mute his own feelings by using the emotionless term “acquainted” throughout the song and in the title to characterize the relationship. This track speaks to the kind of tension Abel must be experiencing in his love life that are symbolically representative of his changes in the direction of his career.
During an interview with the New York Times, when asked if he was “in love”, he replied: “I don’t know, to be honest with you…it’s no, it’s yes, it’s maybe. It’s [the album] about me being who I am and stepping out of my comfort zone to try to feel something besides what I’ve been feeling the past four years.” He is trying to maintain the essence of his music and avoid sacrifices artistically while at the same time embarking on this typically sacrificial voyage to the top of the industry.
Whether or not the polishing up of his mainstream appeal and growing feelings for a woman are completely coincidental events in his life is a matter of debate, but in this song there are definite impressions of them in the music, and sonically, this isn’t a bad thing.
The album continues with a flush of recognizable Billboard hits, providing a substantial amount of the commercial safety of the album but still possessing the darker themes typically expected. For example, “Can’t Feel My Face”, a major summer smash with an upbeat vibe, still seems to possess the drug references notable in The Weeknd’s music. Singing, “And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb, And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come”, Abel personifies a drug addiction to a beautiful woman and how he feels when he is with her; trickery to the mainstream radio.
The choice of features are also appreciable, with the likes of Kanye West, Labrinth, Lana Del Rey, and Ed Sheeran all making appearances on this album. What I can say about the selection of features is that they are a collection of characters that mesh well with the dark, self-depressive world The Weeknd has created for himself and represent the favours he is now able to cash in due to his growing star.
Another notable album cut is track 10 entitled “In The Night”. Co-written and produced by Max Martin, this song is spookily Michael Jackson-esque with an electric feel, showcasing The Weeknd’s vocals on a swing-style beat. He stories a young girl’s fall into prostitution and loss of innocence, singing, “in the night she’s dancing to relieve the pain…she was young and she was forced to be a woman”. This record is Abel’s most effective example of his new ability to store all of his familiar subject matter into a neater, much more commercially friendly package in the same way iconic hits like “Dirty Diana” and “Billie Jean” were presented to the world.
Abel’s musical developments with this LP are subtle ones; he takes steps in the right direction towards becoming a full-fledged “pop” star but remains loyal to his distinct, eerie R&B sound. Thematically, the album contains much of the same content matter as his previously acclaimed mixtapes but are packaged in a tighter, neater arrangement this time around. This album is built for radio, from the song lengths to the new friendliness of his choruses (or even the mere existence of choruses this time) to the chords he now sings over in comparison to his typically foggy production style. But what is most relieving is Abel refrains from jeopardizing the quality of the music; and so, with a sigh, the “Madness” comes to an end.