First of all, I know it’s been AGES since I’ve posted here and I thank everyone who has visited the page! Second, yes, we typically focus on house music productions and artists on this blog, HOWEVER, every now and again an album comes along that stops you dead in your tracks and makes you realize, “if they don’t already know, people NEED to know about this”.
Such is the case with the just-released second studio album Beauty Behind the Madness from Canadian singer The Weeknd. You’ve already heard the anthem of the summer, “Can’t Feel My Face”, which was my motivator to pick up the disc in the first place. It’s got “Billie Jean” written all over it, but after giving the rest of his sophomore effort a thorough listening, I can safely say that “Can’t Feel My Face” is really only the tip of the iceberg here.
Beauty Behind the Madness is an intense mixture of dark, engaging storytelling, vocal acrobatics from The Weeknd(real name Abel Tesfaye) and his guests(in the form of Labrinth, Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Ray), and some of the most incredible music that I’ve heard in years. The man can sing like it’s nobody’s business and Tesfaye doesn’t sugar-coat his lyrical themes. The result is a brooding monster that sounds like the darkest R&B record ever made, but its slick production and focus on contrasting loud and dynamic moments with softer, more intimate sections where Weeknd’s vocal deliveries and near-desperate sounding phrasings pierce through the orchestral accompaniments, carry the entire album and the end result is a cohesive masterpiece that could have a lot of people talking come Grammy time.
“Real Life” opens the album and has actually become one of my favourite tracks from the record. With it’s heavy metal opening stabs, this piano, string and guitar-driven number sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album and this is not a party album, with “Can’t Feel My Face” being the near-sole exception. “Losers” featuring guest Labrinth comes close, breaking into a swinging graveyard-hoedown while preaching that “only losers go to school”. “Tell Your Friends” continues down the same dark, narrative path while introducing a nice soul groove and “The Hills” paints a paranoid portrait of the Weeknd’s more sinister side and the underlying trap beats give the track its drunken feel while he conveys it lyrically and does so brilliantly.
“Can’t Feel My Face”, as much a love song as it is a cheeky homage to chemicals, serves as not only one of the most successful crossover singles in recent memory, but also the centerpiece of the album. Perfectly meshing the dark lyrical themes and amazing production values that have come to define the Weeknd’s sound and widespread appeal, it features one of the sickest basslines I’ve ever heard and its immediately recognizable and listener-friendly groove ensure that people will be getting down to this monster of a jam for a LONG time.
Perhaps my favourite moments on the album come from the final three tracks. The guest contributions of Ed Sheeran (“Dark Times”) and Lana Del Ray(“Prisoner”) not only work perfectly, but they make complete sense, particularly the way Ms. Del Ray and her smoky, sultry tones directly compliment the overall dark feeling of the disc. “Angel” is a memorable closer that brings the pleading, yearning sound established by “Real Life” full circle; it is at one minute mournful and then seconds later uplifting and inspiring, namely due to the ambiguous nature of the lyrical content . As the hook repeats throughout it builds and grows stronger with the addition of a children’s choir and a cameo from singer Maty Noyes until reaching a perfect peak before bringing the album to a dramatic close.
Even though to sound quality on this release is nothing short of astonishing, it is the Weeknd’s voice that most deservedly takes certain stage; despite being heavily processed, Tesfaye manages to cut through the effects and the purity and uniqueness of his tone is consistent from start to finish. The brutality honest lyrics may not be the casual R&B listener’s cup of tea, but it turns out there may be a lot more beauty transcending the madness in this legitimate new contender for album of the year.