Two years ago, The Weeknd released his debut album, Kiss Land. It received a less-than-stellar review in this paper. Abel Tesfaye’s first album lacked the creative firepower and surprise his original three mixtapes brought to R&B.
Last year, in a surprise move, The Weeknd appeared on Ariana Grande’s incredible “Love Me Harder” off her album My Everything. The architect in creating “Harder” was pop mega-producer Max Martin, a Swede with an ear for creating uber-hits like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
Martin is the genius behind The Weeknd’s monstrous second act. The producer clearly recognized an untapped superstar in Tesfaye from working with him on “Harder.” During his mixtape phase, the singer avoided the spotlight. He was largely faceless and unknown. On Kiss Land, he was present on his cover, but not forcing his way into the spotlight by any means. Martin’s move for The Weeknd was to embrace his inner Michael Jackson, easily one of the biggest superstars of all time.
Vocally, comparisons between Tesfaye and Jackson are easy as both can reach incredible highs. (There was a cover of Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” on The Weeknd’s third mixtape, Echoes of Silence.) However, Jackson owned the spotlight while The Weeknd lived in the shadows.
At the debut of Apple Music on June 8, The Weeknd became the emo-Michael Jackson with the premiere of “Can’t Feel My Face.” The song became one of the biggest hits of the summer, scoring Tesfaye his first number one single on the Billboard 200.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is a genius hit and easily one of the best songs of the year. It makes use of Martin’s production and Tesfaye’s skill for writing about drugs, love, and sex. “Can’t Feel My Face” channels the entirety of the singer’s vocal range from hitting incredibly high notes to low grumblings. With newfound firepower as a pop star, does the singer’s second effort at a hit album, Beauty Behind The Madness, reintroduce us to Abel Tesfaye?
Undoubtedly, yes. Madness is light-years ahead of Kiss Land in terms of quality. The Weeknd worked on writing a truly accessible album. His key move was toning down the filthiness of his lyrics. With the mixtape trilogy, we were introduced to the singer as a drugged-out, over-sexed lothario. On Kiss Land, listeners had been bludgeoned with Tesfaye’s promiscuity.
Madness turns down the drugs and filth to a manageable low, but keeps the love and sex at a powerfully strong level. He manages to find a strong medium to remain the same songwriter while keeping the grotesque qualities of his past work down.
The majority of Madness is new territory upon which Tesfaye strides proudly. He takes prideful claim over his success on the soul sampling Kanye West-produced “Tell Your Friends.” He enters into a dubstep house-ish arena with UK singers Labrinth on “Losers,” and finds his female counterpart of Lana Del Rey in “Prisoners.”
The strongest song of the album other than “Face” is “In The Night.” Once again helmed by Martin, “Night” finds The Weeknd in an 80-sounding Chromeo-styled funk groove.
This is not to say Madness is not without it’s weak spots. The collaboration with Ed Sheeran, “Dark Times,” seems questionable. One can hardly believe Sheeran and Tesfaye are cut from the same fabric. Sheeran has always come off as the nice guy trying to prove he’s cool, while Tesfaye is a man of the night.
“The Hills,” the second single from the album, is a poor vehicle for the singer. He is lowly wobbling or fuzzed out, which is a bad decision for a singer known for hitting rare highs. The song following it, “Acquainted,” isn’t a sharp variation and feels lazy.
Overall, Madness is miles in the right direction for The Weeknd after the poor musical display in Kiss Land. Two years ago it would hard to believe this artist could step to center stage and become a full-blown pop sensation, but the best place for Tesfaye to go is the one we never thought he could.