A hopeless romantic—much more hopeless than romantic—The Weeknd seems eternally obsessed with the thought of things dying, whether it’s love, people, dreams or ideas. Less grim possibilities rarely seem to cross his mind. As a narrator, he’s used to dragging his feet through life while bemoaning the frailty of love. On Beauty Behind the Madness, he’s struggling to escape the stasis brought on by a seemingly pointless search for connection. As much as this arbiter of somber, cultish anthems for young people in need of a blues spokesman wants to alter his lifestyle, the idea of change is, for now, just an idea. This is his usual tortured body of work that proves the destructive nature of self-fulfilling prophecies, but this time with a sliver of hope.
The album opens the way a Weeknd album would, with a set of jarring horror chords similar to those on his early single “The Hills.” Then the first line—the first pessimistic one of many—is The Weeknd singing, “Tell ’em this boy wasn’t meant for loving.” You could consider this opening track, “Real Life,” to be an explanation for his alienation over the past few years; a report on why he treats pussy as if it’s a death grip, falls in love with white lines, and makes music about being trapped in a lonely mind state while imprisoning others (including listeners) in the process. After years spent on an island, he now wants more people to hear him as an artist. So while The Madness is inevitably the soundtrack to sobbing in a darkly lit chamber, that chamber is now equipped with a radio.
Anyone wondering whether The Weeknd can succeed on a large scale shouldn’t worry, because The Madness is a solid commercial Weeknd album. With the help of broad-minded producers, he’s made songs for universal playback. Most of it is thoroughly listenable, a version of pop that’s glum but absorbing, music that bends the light into the darkness.
More than his usual moody cave rhythms, he’s chosen pulses and tempos that fill rooms without suffocating them. Besides the Max Martin-produced “Can’t Feel My Face,” the most blatant pop reach is “In the Night,” another bright thesis about numbness. (How bad is the fast life, really?) Surprisingly soulful (for him), “Tell Your Friends” sways on a slow-dance rhythm that Usher or Ne-Yo could own if not for the damaged songwriting that sums up The Weeknd’s whole aesthetic (“I’m that nigga with the hair singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill”). The gothic blues story in “Dark Times” has Ed Sheeran humming gloomily about drunk regrets while The Weeknd squeals about bad relationship timing. Its distressed, trudging pace is outmatched only by its lyrics: “Only my mother could love me for me.” He’s truly the king of incessant whining.
As much as we maybe shouldn’t care about his love life, lines like this make you wonder if anyone will love The Weeknd like he wants to be loved, or whether he has any interest in a happy ending. Moroseness is so addictive, after all. The Weeknd’s women are just as toxic as he is, but there’s no doubt that his touch inflicts more harm than good. Touching, in fact, is not intimacy but a way of knowing he’s alive. The wonderment (from our end) is part of what makes this album compelling—when instead of confidence in his reckless choices, he considers alternatives. Topically, he’s stuck between embracing despair and futilely trying to break from what he knows best: sex and drugs.
Could we call that progress? Either way, he’s using beautiful words to get there. On one end, he asks, “What can you show me that my heart don’t know already?” He sings, “They told me not to fall in love. That shit is pointless.” He thinks he’s better off alone. His mom thinks he’ll end up in ruins, too. On the other more cheerful end, he’s piecing together the good things he’s heard about love that he’s yet to fully confirm:
“I heard that love is a risk worth taking” (“Real Life”)
“Even though you’ll break my heart, my heart, I’ma need you” (“As You Are”)
“You bring good to my lonely life, honestly” (“Prisoner”)
“To say that we’re in love is dangerous/ But girl, I’m so glad we’re acquainted” (“Acquainted”)
Occasionally, his purposeful, impressive Michael Jackson ticks are as glossy and pristine as an ’80s heartthrob’s. He’s good at mimicking MJ. But when he’s reaching too much for that untouchable greatness, the voice loses sheen and goes from a crisp high pitch that perfectly accentuates his dark points to an airless, screeching tremble. “In the Night”—his intentional stab at a modern “Thriller”—is particularly tough to sit through. “Earned It” is still one of his most magical vocal moments.
One of the album’s few slices of optimism is the final track, “Angel,” where The Weeknd speaks highly of a person who brings him “light”—it’s that ubiquitous angel who shows up everywhere in R&B and pop. A woman’s airy voice comes out of nowhere toward the end to support his dulcet tones before the song erupts into a chorus of hope. It’s the cheesiest he’s ever sounded. But in this case, the repetition of the hook isn’t just a structural device. Like the best pop, the repetition drives the point home deeply, like casting a spell.
Only time will tell if we’re meant for this
If we’re meant for this
And if we’re not,
I hope you find somebody
I hope you find somebody
I hope you find somebody
I hope you find somebody to love
Somebody to love
Somebody to love.
The Weeknd is wishing love on someone else here, while clearly talking to himself. It’s that feeling that if you say something enough, maybe it’ll come true.
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Image via Republic