The Weeknd’s recent run has been nothing short of incredible. His transition from the genre of dark, alternative RnB he created to pop has been magnificent, but not without hiccups like the beautiful but not commercially huge Kiss Land. Ever since his pop collaboration with Arianna Grande in 2014, he has been on the upward trajectory in terms of popularity. With the Fifty Shades of Grey lead single, ‘Earned It,’ and first own hit single ‘Can’t Feel My Face,’ The Weeknd has emerged as a full-blown pop star, charting 3 and 1, respectively. The final piece of his transition relies in his first full pop release, his sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
Beauty Behind The Madness opens with the cinematic, much like ‘Earned It’ but more dramatic over sultry, ‘Real Life.’ The intro sets the stage for a more pop centered record than previous intros like ‘Professional’ or ‘High for This.’ The blazing horns sound like a wake up call within Abel, transitioning to his verse in sweeping chord as if he has been snapped out of a haze he has inhabited his first four releases. Instantly, the nature of his transition is made clear. The Weeknd has left behind his dark, drugged out RnB behind for catchier and grander, but not necessarily better melodies. The new sound is still good, but not as innovative or replay worthy as his previous sound.
With songs like ‘Often,’ ‘Can’t Feel My Face,’ and ‘As You Are,’ BBTM has a more diverse blend of styles than any previous release. It offers a little bit for everyone rather than a cohesive body of work like all his other releases. While putting dark bangers, catchy pop anthems and slower pop jams into one album makes more a diverse project, it feels a bit spread out and pieced together compared to masterpieces like House of Balloons and Thursday, not to say these projects could have accomplished the vision of BBTM.
The Weeknd does a good job of blending his old sound with a more pop friendly sound on ‘The Hills,’ ‘Tell Your Friends,’ and ‘Acquainted,’ ending up as some of the best songs on the album. These show Tesfaye has not gone full pop, although just by looking at songs like ‘In the Night’ and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ one might think he has. This is not to say he does pop bad, or even the music is bad on these songs. These fresh pop songs with merit beyond just dominating and potential to dominate the charts. But, there is something lacking from these compositions that The Weeknd’s old music had– a dark, atmospheric feeling that no one else can replicate.
BBTM’s three collaborations is much more than any other Weeknd project has, not even including additional vocals from Maty Notes on the closing ‘Angels.’ ‘Losers,’ had interesting production, but I could have gone without ever hearing it, and that’s not even mentioning Labrinth’s verse, which could be completely cut from the song and actually make it better. ‘Dark Times (feat. Ed Sheran), finds both meeting middle ground, with a slower, dark pop song, that has potential to do well on radio. While this collaboration might be a huge success, it is not particularly outstanding compared to the rest of The Weeknd’s work. ‘Prisoner (feat. Lana Del Rey)’ is the only collaboration that felt right on BBTM. The Weeknd and Lana enter both of their own, sadistic, pained worlds without having to find any middle ground and create a beautiful and grand song, with bass to rival the hardest banger. This song is one of the best songs overall on the album. Although Lana does not particularly bring a lot to the song, she does not feel out of place on a Weeknd album.
Although many songs off the album are impressive, as a whole they lose some value because so many were released or leaked prior to the release. “Can’t Feel My Face,’ ‘In The Night’ and an earlier version of ‘Acquantiatied’ called ‘Girls Born In The 90s,’ featuring production from Doc McKinney, one of the mastermind’s behind Trilogy, who was notably left off BBTM, all leaked in May. ‘The Hills,’ was released in May officially, and ‘Earned It,’ was released in late 2014. Not to mention that ‘Often’ was dropped over a year ago. On top of that, ‘Prisoner,’ and ‘Tell Your Friends,’ were both previewed before the release. That’s over half the songs on the album being previewed or released before the album came out, making the actual release a little less impressive. Perhaps, this was a smart move on The Weeknd’s part, easing fans into his new sound also while releasing critical singles that took him from an alternative RnB star to a full on pop star. While this might have been a smart move tactically, it makes the album seem like I’ve been playing it all year, making repeating or listening all the way through somewhat of a less enticing exercise as it should be.
One thing that is notably missing from the album is any production from Doc McKinney, who with help of Illangelo and Abel, crafted The Weeknd’s debut sound. While The Weeknd discussed in an interview with Rolling Stone that he spent 5 months in Portland making a “super-drugged-out Nirvana vibe,” likely with Doc, we see none of this material on the album. While it might not have fit the new sound The Weeknd is going with to dominate the charts, I am certain touches from Doc would have fit, such as the ‘In the 90s’ song that became ‘Acquainted’ when all touches from Doc were removed from BBTM. Other songs were previewed on Instagram, which sounded better than a good portion of the album, not to mention the countless tracks between these two that will never be heard. This is another reminder that pop domination comes at a cost to overall musical quality.
Beauty Behind The Madness is undoubtedly a successful step in a new direction for The Weeknd. Although it is substantially removed from his earlier projects, it carries an abundance of hits and potential ones. While he cannot fulfill his full potential as the star of the sound he crafted earlier in his career while trying to become the biggest music star in the world, he can craft compelling pop music that is something far beyond the cookie cutter output of major labels.