Beauty Behind the Madness (released August 28, 2015)
It’s gotta be nearly impossible to please us fickle fans.
Think about it: We discover a new artist, blast mixtapes at ungodly decibels, tell everyone within earshot that our new favorite is the most brilliant artist to EVER step inside a booth, and scream to the heavens that said artist should receive the mainstream attention and dumb TV awards he or she so richly deserves.
But once our little secret becomes a mainstream hit, that admiration begins to fade. When bandwagoners hitch a ride, Day Ones get salty. And lord help us if that artist dares to tinker with his or her signature sound — that’s when you hear these dreaded three words:
“They went pop.”
That’s the dilemma faced by The Weeknd, an artist who was once so enigmatic that you had to scour the depths Google just to find an image of the guy behind infamous mixtapes like The Noise and House of Balloons. But now, thanks to the success of “Earned It” from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack and “I Can’t Feel My Face,” arguably the biggest song of the summer, Weeknd’s face is plastered everywhere. His success comes with a new pop sound too — a sound that has captivated mainstream audiences but has turned off many longtime fans.
On Beauty Behind the Madness, his second proper studio album, Weeknd aims to serve two masters — legions of fans who have latched on to his upbeat sounds, and longtime fans who remember him as the brooding recluse. It might seem like an impossible task, but Weeknd deftly bridges those two worlds.
Weeknd’s new sound comes with a newfound maturity. In many ways, this is a somewhat kinder, gentler Weeknd. The operative word, though, is somewhat.
“Last year I did all the politicin’/This year I’m all focused on the vision” he croons on “Tell Your Friends,” a stream-of-consciousness rant that resembles one of R. Kelly’s old sonic sermons. “Used to hate attention, now I pull up in that wagon” — this Weeknd doesn’t spend all this time in dirty basement parties with drugged-out women. He’s flasher, and it gets results.
Even with dark subject matter, the bouncy keys of “Losers” sounding suspiciously like “Baby, Hit Me One More Time,” provide an undercurrent of energy. “In The Night” resonates too, giving credence to all those comparison to Off-The-Wall-era Michael Jackson. But when it comes to energy, nothing compares to “Can’t Feel My Face” — in fact, Weeknd gets lost in that very energy, which drags the track down a few notches for me.
But don’t fret, ride or die Weeknd fans. He’s still the sex-crazed weirdo with the broccoli haircut you fell in love with in 2011.
“Often,” one of betters tracks of 2014, is a welcome addition, combining murky atmosphere with Weeknd’s signature brand of sleaze. “The Hills” is a slightly inferior take on the same themes of late-night booty calls but the distorted vocals give it a different feel.
Beauty Behind the Madness impresses most when it combines both of Weeknd’s worlds. “Shameless” is not much more than Weeknd backed by guitar licks — it gives him a much more gentle, authentic feel than his usual material. He also teams with Ed Sheeran on “Dark Times” and Lana Del Rey on “Prisoner,” with the latter proving to be an especially potent duet.
Probably the best depiction of the album’s feel is the closer, “Angel,” where Weeknd pleads gently tells his girl to move on, repeatedly saying “I hope you find somebody to love.” The old Weeknd would have discarded her without a thought. But he’s no longer the nihilistic and miserable man he once was — he’s showing growth as an adult and as an artist.
No, Beauty Behind the Madness doesn’t sound like the House of Balloons mixtape, nor does it resemble his last album Kiss Land. While it’s far from perfect (some of the songwriting is a bit lacking) it showcases an artist who is growing in the right direction. Weeknd’s fans — both old and new — should be able to appreciate that.
Best tracks: “Often,” “Tell Your Friends,” “Angel”
4 stars out of 5