Admittedly…The Weeknd wasn’t on my radar until reading the Philadelphia Inquirer Music Critic Dan DeLuca’s article on the Canadian singer’s upcoming headlining performance the Sunday of the 2015 Budweiser Made in America Festival. It was surprising to see an artist (at least in my eyes) so fresh to the music scene headlining a festival with more than 70,000 attendees.
After a superficial online search about The Weeknd at that time, I found his name (Abel Tesfaye), his hair, an autumn 2014 raunchy duet with another up-and-coming Republic Records label-mate, Ariana Grande, and the track “Earned It” that appropriately supported the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The latter ultimately becoming his first Top 5 hit, receiving an Academy Award nomination and a Grammy win for Best R&B Performance.
DJing mostly weddings, private parties, corporate and radio events, my music collection is curated with the latest up-tempo hits and the classics from the various genres of popular music that fills dancefloors…The Weeknd falls into none of those categories.
The saturation of major-label releases dropping onto mainstream airwaves each month makes it difficult to find time time and dig into the vast underground music scene that so many deeper music listeners have come to enjoy; The Weeknd comes from that world.
The music one chooses to listen to for their own enjoyment becomes personal and unique over time, and I haven’t been able to focus away from Top 40 and my established favorite groups since the early 2000s. That being said, it was pure curiosity that brought me to Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd’s second major-label album release.
Listening for the first time to the album as a whole, it was clear I never experienced something this dark lyrically. Never being a drug user or seeking out purely sexual relationships with women, I found the album’s overall tone a bit offensive by the time it reached its softer conclusion. This isn’t the Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight, Joe and Usher R&B I grew up listening to.
Let’s be clear, I am not adding an album review in this space. All of the major magazines and music critics have had their say and I wouldn’t be adding anything new. This is a personal commentary.
The second Madness listen came in chunks; a consecutive flow of the tracks broken up by short commutes in the car. By this time, I had familiarized myself with the music videos supporting the #1 singles “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills,” and what seems to be the conclusion of that story in the “Tell Your Friends” video. The tone for each track carries consistently from the record to the videos, all directed by Grant Singer. This may be getting a bit too cerebral, but the “Tell Your Friends” video is filmed in the full screen 4:3 aspect ratio, while the two that preceded it are in the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. The videos do not need to be dissected this deep, just an observation. Maybe the creative team did this on purpose?
I can’t fully explain what it is that draws me back to the Madness album so frequently and has left me hanging on for the next offering from the young R&B singer. Is it the hauntingly atmospheric production work by Jason Quenneville, Illangelo and the rest of the team involved? Yes. It sure as hell isn’t the collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Ray. But…The Weeknd can also sing. Much better than anyone else on the R&B charts at the moment. Currently his voice seems unaffected by the drug use he frequently sings about. Michael Jackson comes to mind, with less energy. Unless the moment calls for it like “In the Night,” which is blatant MJ.
Don’t get it confused, though. Seldom does this album in particular go in that direction. It invites you in with confidence, then brings you through raw peaks and valleys that is genre defining.
Some electric guitar riffs also break-through at times, adding another layer to the Madness.
Even though he has the juggernaut team at Republic Records and all of Universal Music Group’s resources behind him (with Max Martin sometimes), it seems like the stories aren’t fabricated or tampered with, leaving his talent and darkness. So dark that he murders himself twice and commits suicide once in his videos to date. Further, I haven’t once seen him don anything but long pants and long sleeve shirts/jackets, all dark colors. “I’m never rockin’ white I’m like a racist.”
The most rebellious of days through my CD boombox had …And Then There Was X by DMX and Devil Without a Cause by Kid Rock pulsing through the ceiling into the kitchen below my bedroom. That didn’t make mom too happy, and rightfully so; she thought that 14 years old was a bit too young to process murder, jail and hoes for entertainment. The point is, I don’t know if I want anyone in my family or even some friends to know of my fascination with Madness. Or, whatever else lies ahead in the seemingly authentic story The Weeknd is telling. Is he a villain in a Horror movie that’s all too real? Horror is my favorite genre, so I don’t doubt that’s where some of the appeal seeps in.
If you would like to blow the whole thing wide open — and reveal more than the vague information I’ve provided in this piece — then I highly recommend the Rolling Stone article from last year. But if you are along for this dark musical journey that is unfolding as I am, the music and videos keep some of the mystique around the character we see and hear. The Weeknd is no doubt unique among the plethora of attractive pop stars that lack depth and creativity in their musical offerings. Not saying his peers aren’t talented, but the Billboard is currently lacking his level of authenticity.
As the next chapter begins, I hope there’s a continuity that resembles everything Tesfaye has brought us to this point. Looking back on the body of work that brought him to his breakout success will be necessary when time permits. Until then, his two newest tracks keep me guessing.
The first single “Starboy” brings the French duo Daft Punk and their influence and production into the mix. The accompanying video shows The Weeknd in Puma kicks wearing a crucifix and missing his signature doo. The newest single “False Alarm” is a strange choice for a second release. I thought upon first hearing it that perhaps The Weeknd was going more mainstream, but the violent video (literally) killed those thoughts.
I can’t justify the $10 per month the music streaming services command, but I am going all in on Starboy with high expectations. The Weeknd is a supervillain I’m rooting for, and I can’t turn his music off. What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.