The Weeknd's much-discussed transformation from shadowy crooner to pop heavyweight has certainly proved a valuable marking tool, but it's all a little overblown. The lead-up to Abel Tesfaye’s second major label album, Beauty Behind the Madness, has focused around the fact that he worked with Swedish pop impresario Max Martin, among others, in an effort to find the big-time commercial success that has mostly eluded him until now. But an album of Max Martin-penned pop smashes Beauty Behind the Madness is not. It’s got hits, ones that can be backed up with hard numbers, but in a lot of ways, his vision remains untampered.
Martin has credits on only two of the album’s 14 tracks—the majority of the album’s production is handled by Tesfaye himself, along with longtime collaborator Illangelo. It still sounds like the Weeknd, just more spit-shined and less monochromatic than before. There’s a bloom-and-contract menace to “Real Life” that tips its hat to Tesfaye’s arena-sized aspirations, and “As You Are” exudes a real warmth even though its components remain gaseous at below-zero temperatures. But while Beauty Behind the Madness is full of a lot more ice than fire, its singles feel like easy-access entry points into The Weeknd’s nocturnal underworld.
Make no mistake, the album absolutely goes for the radio jugular. The success of its singles has reflected this: the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack song “Earned It” went all the way to #3, the "Thriller"-meets-Blade Runner disco sleaze of “Can’t Feel My Face” currently sits at #2 after hitting the top spot two weeks before, and “The Hills” peaked at #5 on the Top 100 chart. Of these three singles, it’s “The Hills” that most resembles his previous work, both topically and in terms of production (more specifically, his trilogy of mixtapes and not 2013’s disappointing Kiss Land); a woman’s blood-curdling scream signals the arrival of the track’s hook, on which Tesfaye purports that the only time he’s himself is when he’s out of his mind on illicit substances.
The extended cocaine metaphor of “Can’t Feel My Face” is also vintage Weeknd subject matter—its Max Martin-helmed production less so. In retrospect, last year’s “Love Me Harder,” Tesfaye’s collaboration with Ariana Grande, feels like a proof of concept for the Weeknd As Pop Star. Tesfaye had flirted with pop sounds before (see “The Morning” or “Montreal” for examples), but his approach was never this laser-guided. Even though “Can’t Feel My Face” is one of the glossiest things Tesfaye’s ever sung over, it feels—just like “Love Me Harder” before it— like it’s been tailored personally to his frame rather than an awkward fit that’s slouchy in the shoulders and too wide in the waist.
Over the course of his first three mixtapes, Tesfaye’s world became narrower and more insular; by its end, the party has cleared out and Tesfaye was left alone with only his self-destructive tendencies to keep him company. Kiss Land was equally as bleak and, in some ways, even more depressing; Tesfaye had become a star, but just as lonely as before despite more money and even easier access to his vices. The new wrinkle this time around? The Weeknd falls in love. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that it doesn’t end well, but the conceit lets him get out of his head for once, a kind of revelation for an artist who’s rarely thought of more than where his next fix was coming from. In the past, his id-driven pleasure principle prevented Tesfaye from wrestling with how his actions might affect someone other than himself, but here he exhibits some actual self-awareness over the course of the album. As much as he loves this person, he just can’t seem to get his life straight enough to make it work. Of course, old habits die hard. While it’s still a bit surreal to hear him singing a straight-up love song, as he does on “Earned It (50 Shades of Grey),” things are still framed in the sort of transactional terms that make sense to someone whose strongest relationship is with their dealer.
They told me not to fall in love, that shit is pointless, sings Tesfaye on “Tell Your Friends,” one of the album’s highlights; conversely, on “Real Life” he admits I heard that love is a risk worth taking. This is an album-length exploration of these two warring impulses, and it’s a release where, for the first time in his career, the Weeknd ends up something of a sympathetic character. It’s got its soggy patches: the overly repetitive “Losers” falls on its face, and “Dark Times” finds Ed Sheeran failing to convince us that he’s ever gotten into an actual fight before. Beauty Behind the Madness sometimes overestimates its own importance, too, like when trotting out end-of-song transitions that don’t add anything. But the fact that Tesfaye now seems to now realize that personal growth never happens in a straight line hints at a more nuanced understanding of the concept than the dude seemed capable of. Two steps forward and one step backwards is still progress, after all.