It seems like only yesterday that Abel Tesfaye sent the indie blogosphere into paroxysms when he burst onto the scene with a sublime debut trio of mixtapes – House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence – back in 2011.
The Weeknd of that vintage revelled in self-imposed anonymity, self-releasing his first tracks on Youtube with little by way of explanation or promotional material and allowing word-of-mouth hype to do the rest.
Four years and a major label full-length behind him – 2013’s Kiss land– and things are very different. With a guest verse on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder, a performance at the VMAs and, bizarrely, the theme song to the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey under his belt, Tesfaye is well on his way through a metamorphosis taking him from shadowy indie lothario to bona fide crossover pop star.
In this context, Beauty Behind The Madness and particularly lead single and global mega-hit Can’t Feel My Face can be seen as nothing short of an all-out assault on the American pop mainstream.Make no mistake, the moody, genre-hopping blend of R&B, pop and programmed beats that made previous offerings such intriguing listens is still evident. But so too are massive vocal hooks, swelling choruses and glossier, atmospheric production values. For the most part these are welcome additions.
It’s a subtle redefinition of his sound rather than a complete departure and if early indications are anything to go by (debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and hitting the top ten in more than 20 countries globally) one which has struck commercial gold.
Lead single Can’t Feel My Face has been on heavy radio rotation all summer – to the joy of some and the despair of others – whilst In The Night, displays The Weeknd at hispoppiest. Underpinned by catchy disco grooves and punctuated with falsetto yelps, Michael Jackson comparisons are inevitable but not entirely unwarranted.
Other standout tracks include Losers, which builds on a funky piano riff into a huge horn-driven crescendo and The Hills, on which Tesfaye croons: “the hills have eyes/ the hills have eyes” over sparsely arranged, bassy beats.
The Weeknd’s longstanding lyrical preoccupation with the seedier side of his nocturnal activities remains too. Less-than-subtle line like this one are prevalent: “I usually love sleeping all alone/This time around bring your friend with you/But we ain’t really gonna sleep at all.” However, when paired with The Weeknd’s new status and sonic direction, they come across less as gritty and romantic but rather downright sleazy.
No The Weeknd album could ever be described as easy listening, but Beauty Behind the Madness is by some margin Tesfaye’s most accessible release yet. Weighing in at 14 tracks and 65 minutes long, it feels at least three songs too heavy and its moody atmosphere can feel stifling on extended listening.
But this is a solid album featuring some excellent tracks that make it well worth a listen. On the basis of this record, The Weekend’s passage to long-term commercial success looks assured. He may have started as an unknown artist on the R&B scene, but his fame is sure to continue rising.