Five years ago, Abel Tesfaye was an enigma. Cultivating a persona that mystified audiences and critics alike, his first release, House of Balloons, was a beautifully composed mixtape of alt R&B mired in hedonistic self loathing. Since 2010, he’s supplemented House of Balloons with two accompanying tapes to complete Trilogy, released a major label debut, and most interestingly, managed to worm his way into mainstream pop appeal without giving up the dark integrity that put him on the map. Collaborating with a variety of contemporary pop stalwarts from Sia to Ariana Grande, and even managing to soundtrack 50 Shades of Grey, The Weeknd has transitioned from being the hipster figurehead for coked up sex to an artist that manages to stealthily tread the line of what’s acceptable to play on Top 40 radio. With Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd sets his sights on melding his signature gloom with a more universally accessible sound.
Elements you’ve become accustomed to with Abel are still here, partly due to longtime collaborator Illangelo still spearheading the majority of production. Certain tracks have an irresistibly catchy ability to soar, there are a variety of instrumentals that effectively blend traditional elements of soul, rock, and pop with his alternative R&B vibe. Tracks like the Kanye West produced Tell Your Friends, or the acoustic guitar backdropped Shameless, are wonderfully accompanied by Abel’s falsetto. His ability to effortlessly croon over sixty-five minutes of music while still managing to sound interesting and compelling is a testament to just how much of a draw his voice is. On tracks with a much heavier pop inflection and a more upbeat tempo, like the chart topping Can’t Feel My Face, Abel is convincingly adept at adapting to just where he needs to be. The general allure of Abel’s vocals, in combination with a wider variety of sound at his disposal, leads to Beauty Behind The Madness being a much more absorbing offering than the aforementioned Kissland.
The biggest pitfall of the record however, falls on a number of instances of weak songwriting. Abel’s always been characterized by the relative romanticism that comes with excess, the music plays like a contemplative existential hangover. The draw of being thrust into a world of overindulgence that you’re only privy to if you manage to run with a select circle, doesn’t gel as smoothly when its combined with a more approachable and inclusive sound. The songwriting works on previous efforts like Trilogy, precisely because of the ethereal tone. Tracks like Losers, As You Are, and Acquainted come off as run of the mill generic pop songwriting. While Tesfaye is still just as menacing and depraved as ever, it’s not as convincing when it’s shared on a record with songs that come off as the antithesis of what he represents.
The album might not arrive at the pop genre shifting heights of Michael Jackson or Prince that Abel was aiming for; but it's a valid effort and a well intentioned attempt at combining his aesthetic with a reach for global stardom. Abel five years ago isn't necessarily a far cry from who he is now, he's still who we've come to expect, he's just set his sights on world domination, even if he just falls short.