By Meg Zulch
Immediately after the album’s drop last month, Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. The Weeknd) performed a captivating and literally fiery rendition of his hit single “Can’t Feel My Face” at the VMAs, which was as soul soaring as it was soul crushing in its intensity and sensual darkness. And once you listen to the album itself, you realize Tesfaye had literally set the scene for his twisted sexy nightmare of a record, Beauty Behind the Madness. The Weeknd’s sophomore studio album completely engulfs you in the flames of Tesfaye’s self-loathing attitude, addiction, and sexual menace; a swirling dark and sexy hell that is as addictive as the drugs he sings about, and as dark and burning as the personal hells he describes.
The baddest boy of the emerging PBR&B genre (combining R&B, hip hop, EDM and rock styles), The Weeknd has already proved himself by making historical chart-topping tunes that when at parties are impossible to ignore, and when by yourself are impossible not to touch yourself (or your partner) to. The dark and heavy synths (more prominent than his earlier work) combined with his soulful and Michael Jackson-esque voice would woo any listener unwittingly, whether you’re familiar with his work or not. The sensuality projected in his music will knock you down and leave you trembling on the ground as The Weeknd overwhelms your senses with desire and euphoria. I’d say “you wanna be high for this,” but his album is really all you need to get your fix.
He takes it a step farther with BBTM compared to previous works, erasing much of his former anonymity and amping up the brutal honesty to create a soul-baring album that is constantly interrupted with repeated claims of his bad boy qualities. This sometimes feels overstated, generating questions of his insecurities despite his insistence that he’s an unaffected sinner.
The record begins with “Real Life,” a rock guitar and cello-ridden confession of his fear of love. Listeners can’t help but contemplate the multiple layers beneath his tough exterior, wondering if his tendency to push love away is a power or weakness of his. It’s the most self aware song of the album. Ultimately, he doesn’t seem to convince his audience to settle on one answer, as his own opinion of it changes throughout the record (from songs flaunting sexual reckless abandonment like “The Hills,” to sweeter songs like “As You Are,” to songs concerning his dilemma of corrupting others, and even love itself, like “Angel”).
The Weeknd may steer clear of love, but he doesn’t hesitate to discuss other ways he indulges as he croons about these addictions in tracks such as “Prisoner” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” As the artist alludes time and time again, “I’m a prisoner to my own addiction/ I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold/ I’m a prisoner to my decisions.” His addictions to drugs, sex, and ambition follow him through his life and through every track of the album. His honesty about this establishes a sense of trust with the listener, a trust that is shaky at best thanks in part to his destructive tendencies that lead him astray in the first place. He divulges some information, while still maintaining a defensive and alluring mystery about him.
But with the vast range of songs, correlating with his emotions, it’s hard to decide whether you should be fearing or embracing him as a voice inside your head (or even a fantasy lover). In “The Hills,” he indifferently states “when I’m fucked up that’s the real me,” and reduces your feelings of self worth down to match his own. In “Shameless,” the slower and smoother Tesfaye tells you he’ll always be there for you, “I have no shame.” But earlier on in the album, he makes risque promises to “make that pussy rain” in his hit single “Often.” The messages are as erratic as his own moody nature, but all have the equal effect of fully seducing you into his impassioned and turbulent world of sin.
With moodiness and self indulgence often comes a lack of understanding for the outside world. In BBTM, it’s established early on that he has little desire to fully recognize the women in his life. That is until track ten. In one of the greatest songs on the album, “In The Night,” Tesfaye acknowledges a mysterious and destructive lady who often leaves in the middle of the night, avoiding love at every turn. And despite her tumultuous character, Tesfaye knows “she’s capable of anything, it’s riveting.” This perplexing creature he describes seems to be the female mirror of his own dark and sultry character, personified in his collaborator Lana Del Rey on the record’s track “Prisoner.”
Just like Tesfaye himself, this beautiful masterpiece of an album isn’t without its flaws. The track “Dark Times” doesn’t match the rest of BBTM’s intensity, thanks to collaborator Ed Sheeran’s lackluster verses and cheesy lines like “only my mother could’ve loved me for me, in my dark times.” The song “Acquainted” also falls a bit short and doesn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the album, as it seems to be too polite and vulnerable of a song to stay true to the persona Tesfaye has been establishing in the tracks leading up to this one.
There is no doubt that The Weeknd’s love is a dangerous one. But whether or not you’re a tried and true fan of his work, or are brand new to his music, you will be helpless to Tesfaye’s fiery, and at times monstrous, clutches while listening to his latest work. He may be a commitment-phobe, but if you’re checking out Beauty Behind the Madness for the first time, get ready to become a prisoner to one of the many grim and seductive realms of his mind. You’ll be in it for the long haul, trust me.