On album number two, The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye has stopped falling in love with prostitutes and started writing conventional pop songs instead, to mixed results. Taking the three bodies of work that made up 'Trilogy' into consideration, 'Beauty Behind The Madness' is actually record number five and musically there are few signs of progression. In terms of finding that pop audience, then it's a success - 'Can't Feel My Face' was the song of the summer, but in terms of doing something that's built upon everything that came before to ultimately make something better, results are sparse.
When 'Trilogy' facelessly appeared on the Internet in three instalments in 2011, they were the epitome of cool. Tesfaye had almost single handedly created a genre of music called PBR&B and his stories of too many drugs (and too many girls) were harrowingly lonely, but inexplicably entrancing. When debut full-length 'Kiss Land' arrived two years ago it received mix reactions, perhaps unfairly. It built on what had come before and set it to a Vangelis-esque Blade Runner soundscape. It made sense, but didn't introduce The Weeknd to anyone who wasn't already familiar with him.
24 months later and Tesfaye has made public that he wants to be the biggest pop star in the world, so while the collaborations on 'Beauty Behind The Madness' with Labrinth and glum troubadour Ed Sheeran may look unorthodox on the surface, they make perfect sense.
That doesn't mean they are good collaborations, though. The Sheeran-featuring 'Dark Times' is a forgettable bluesy number where poor old Ed tries his best to convince us he's ever gotten into a fight. 'Drunk too much, you know what I'm like. You should have seen the other guy,' he dismally mumbles. But like it or not, the man has become just about the biggest pop star on the planet. And as for Labrinth, he's signed to a certain Simon Cowell's record label, so if there was ever a 'I really want to be on The X Factor this year' gesture then handing Labrinth a guest spot on 'Losers' is certainly it.
Elsewhere, 50 Shades Of Grey single 'Earned It' appears in all its romping mummy porn glory and a similar approach is taken to other tracks on the record. The man behind much of 'Trilogy,' Illangelo, delivers a thumping red eyed screeching basement beat for 'The Hills' which has a deep hazy familiarity about it. "When I'm fucked up that's the real me", Tesfaye wails on the ginormous hook, although the two verse wedged either side of it feel like little more than filler. But for long-time fans, this is probably the closest they'll get to hearing The Weeknd they know so well.
There is sadly no Drake feature on the record, but Lana Del Rey steps in to easily deliver the best guest addition on 'Prisoner', in which it becomes apparent that Del Rey could possibly be the girl The Weeknd has been singing about on tracks like 'Lonely Star' since day one. One of 'Kiss Land's' biggest criticisms was its lack of cohesion and failure to add any more to The Weeknd's promise, but while 'Beauty Behind The Madness' has its moments (the Kanye-produced 'Tell Your Friends' is a sexy sleaze-ridden beast), it feels like a collection of rushed songs designed to arrive while Tesfaye is riding a wave of good press - rather than a complete body of work.
In 2011 on 'Rolling Stone' a then 21-year-old Tesfaye sang "I hope I'm not too different and I hope you'll still listen" as he contemplated losing his anonymity. Many fans will still be happy with the change that 'Beauty Behind The Madness' has brought but some will surely feel the album has nothing to offer except immediate accessibility for the short attention of the mainstream.
Words: Matthew Cooper
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