Beauty Behind the Madness
The Weeknd is the name Abel Tesfaye chooses to use when he's performing. But no matter what you call this guy, you have to say that he's a lover, a fighter, a player and a loner.
It's that last attribute, perhaps, that most shapes Beauty Behind the Madness, the soulful Canadian R&B singer's chart-topping sophomore effort. The Weeknd sounds like Michael Jackson by way of Chris Brown, fused with the brooding pessimistic realism of Drake. But Abel Tesfaye never seems confused about who exactly who he is: a man who longs for love but who knows that his appetite for casual sex, his aversion to commitment and his tendency toward violence will likely prevent him from ever finding it.
And that makes Beauty Behind the Madness an ugly affair.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Three songs ("Real Life," "Acquainted," "Dark Times") feature Tesfaye and guest Ed Sheeran mentioning their mothers' warnings about how their lives won't turn out well if they don't change their ways. Otherwise emotionally barren, "The Hills" concludes with this plaintive plea: "What about love?"
Despite some serious relationship issues elsewhere on "Shameless," Tesfaye still has insight into the equally broken woman he's trying to love. "You want me to fix you, but it's never enough," he sings. "That's why you always call me 'cause you're scared to be loved/But I'll always be there for you." On "Earned It" (a hit that appeared on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack), he tells a woman, "Ima care for you, you, you, you, yeah/'Cause girl, you're perfect." More of the same shows up on "As You Are," where we hear, "'Cause I believe in you/You're the only one I choose/ … Yeah, show me your broken heart and all your scars/Baby, I'll take, I'll take, I'll take, I'll take you as you are."
"In the Night" seems to be a cautionary tale about a woman who was caught up into a life of stripping and/or perhaps prostitution when she was very young ("He was cold and he was so unforgiving/Now she dances to the song on the minute/ … She was young and she was forced to be a woman"). Tesfaye says she now dances in a vain attempt to earn affirmation ("In the night she hears them calling/In the night she's dancing to relieve the pain/ … Dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face").
Is it a positive thing that Tesfaye frequently seems to understand the emptiness of his choices? Perhaps it would be more so if that realization led to real, positive change. But too often confessions regarding how empty he feels are followed by more lyrics about succumbing to more sex and more drugs.
On "Prisoner," for instance, The Weeknd is joined by a similarly somber soul mate of sorts, Lana Del Rey. Together they sing, "I'm a prisoner to my addiction/I'm addicted to a life that's so empty and so cold." Of course, said coldness soon gives way to the momentary heat of empty sex ("I feel the rush and it's ing"). Del Ray intones, "I can feel my soul burning, burning slow." (Neither she nor Tesfaye seem motivated to deal with that internal vacuum.) Likewise, "Angel" talks of living a "dangerously empty life." And on "The Hills" we hear, "When I'm f---ed up, that's the real me, babe/ … Always tryna send me off to rehab/Drugs start to feel like it's decaf."
If there's some self-awareness (and possibly even self-critique) in lines like those, elsewhere there is mostly numbed indulgence and glorification of bad behavior. "The Hills," for instance, also delivers this brag: "I just f---ed two b--ches 'fore I saw you." Extremely crude references to oral sex mingle with alcohol on "Tell Your Friends," a song that eventually devolves into an obscenely described orgy. Objectifying references to women's bodies turn up on "Often" (which is a nod to how frequently Tesfaye has sex). He says callously of one partner, "If I had her, you can have her, man it don't matter/I'm never sour, I'm just smokin' somethin' much louder."
"Acquainted" alludes to sex, orgasms and masturbation. Romantic sentiments on "Shameless" get assaulted by the abusive line, "Who's gonna f--- you like me?" And even if Abel exhibits some sympathy for a woman locked in sexual servitude on "In the Night," it doesn't really stop him from taking advantage of her, too.
"Can't Feel My Face," while perhaps humorously innocuous-sounding on the surface, is reportedly about doing cocaine with another addict ("I can't feel my face when I'm with you/But I love it, but I live it").
Two months before The Weeknd dropped Beauty Behind the Madness, his now No. 1 smash "Can't Feel My Face" was accelerating up the charts. I talked with my editor about reviewing it, but we soon realized that it was the only song on the forthcoming album that didn't carry an iTunes Explicit tag. We decided to wait for the full release because we didn't want to review in isolation what was potentially the least problematic song on the album, indirectly giving readers a false sense of security regarding the overall content of this admittedly catchy songwriter's material.
We were right to trust our instincts.
All those Explicit tags are well warranted. There's no shortage of obscenity, graphic anatomical description and dreary, soul-numbing admissions that sex and drugs are Abel Tesfaye's go-to painkillers even when he knows they aren't really helping.
Hollow promiscuity and chemical escapes are the best we can hope for, The Weeknd tells us. That's hardly Beautiful. A better title would be The Brokenness Behind the Emptiness.