This ‘The Weekend’ article was written by Eleanor Wallace, a GIGsoup contributor
‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ is a test of new ground and new empowerment, but riddled with the sex and drugs that form The Weeknd’s backlog. Heavy-lidded, with that characterful mop of hair and dressed in black, Abel Tesfaye stands sultry and brooding in the corner, ignoring and enticing you at the same time. He wants, as he puts it, “to make pop cool again”, and has shaken his smokey guise to step into the limelight. He’s at the top of everyone’s collaboration list, and now this album is the perfect way to break out of the underground R&B scene. “Go tell your friends about it”.
Hauntingly exquisite trip-hop tracks like ‘The Morning’ on the 2011 mixtape ‘House Of Balloons’ still hold their influence over The Weeknd’s newest gift. But he’s gone for some big pop choruses too, bringing his inner Michael Jackson to the forefront. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘In The Night’ have tastes of ‘P.Y.T’ and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ respectively, with the former effortlessly sliding into a Hot Chip/Daft Punk-stylechorus that will no doubt be loved by the masses. Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Ray lend vocals on the album, but the results are by far the least engaging. The collaboration with Labrinth is superior, with a moving piano riff and a soulful blend of voices. ‘Tell Your Friends’ (produced by Kanye West) and ‘The Hills’ see The Weeknd being fundamentally sordid: “Money is the only thing I’m chasing”, “When I’m fucked up that’s the real me”. The lyrics seem to stop us from really understanding who Tesfaye is while he mocks us from high up on his cloud, but they both have an addictive, pounding bass that contrasts beautifully with his delicate voice.
The Weeknd is performing at this weekend’s VMAs. The singer’s performance style is confident and energetic, as he takes his time eying women in the crowd and smirking between lyrics. His recent release seems to be a great big middle finger to his former self, still holding onto a cult following, but relishing in fame. But we cannot be fooled, as Tesfaye’s recent video releases show him being set on fire by a crowd or burying himself alive: symbols of the double-edged sword that is mainstream success.
Tesfaye has always been intentionally controversial, testing our perviousness to drug abuse and misogyny in popular music. But the track ‘Earned It’ achieved widespread popularity due to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is pretty telling of how an addictive hook can cover up any sleazy themes. A lot of his other work was unlikely to attract the same following, until now, as he bares his soul for all to pick apart. In ‘Angel’ he serenades a lost love: “I can see your wings / But I know what I am and the life I live”. It almost hurts to hear such paradox between the pop ballad-style hook and Tesfaye’s contempt-filled lyrics. It’s like he’s weighing you down with his self-loathing, but of course he’s lying right there beside you, infatuated.