In 2012, Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd released “Trilogy”, comprised of the three mixtapes he initially released. The year would help define the sound of “PBR&B” with a myriad of artists like Frank Ocean and Janelle Monae. With nearly impeccable timing, rappers like Drake dropping “Take Care”, Frank Ocean unleashing “Channel Orange” and Miguel releasing “Kaleidoscope Dreams” the era seemed right to usher in The Weeknd into the world of alternative R&B. On his debut, The Weeknd teased the pop world with singles here and there like “Wicked Games” and “High for This” as well as, collabs with bigger name rappers like Drake and Wiz Khalifa as well as, pop vocalists like Ariana Grande.
Three years since, the genre exploded with singers like Jhene Aiko, Tinashe, and even FKA Twigs pushing the envelope of the idea of indie-infused R&B and the game has changed significantly. Drake moved back to his rap roots with “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and Miguel brought sultry sounds to hard rock on “Wildheart.” Although, we’re still waiting on Frank Ocean to drop that sophomore album so the game is still somewhat intact.
Releasing his first official studio LP back in 2013, the realm of mainstream music wasn’t quite ready for The Weeknd’s brand of borderline sleazy R&B. But by Summer 2014, the singer introduced the world to a different side of his music the inescapable club jam “Often” as the lead single off “Beauty Behind the Madness”. Noted for his contrasting falsetto with machismo lyricism, the compositions of his earlier releases were polarizing amongst both fans of indie music and the R&B crowd. However, in the most apt channel of The Weeknd’s music, the singer was featured on the “Fifty Shades of Gray” soundtrack with the lead single “Earned It.” With both the singer and the book-turned-movie criticized for their portrayal of sexual themes, it seemed like a natural fit.
“Beauty Behind the Madness” begins with the sharp synth hits of “Real Life” and strings that pace behind Tesfaye’s piercing vocals. With almost maximalist sensibilities, The Weeknd takes grand arrangements of strings, pianos, and drum beats and blending them with elements of jazz, alt-rock, and funk creating some of the more interesting, syncopated compositions on tracks like “Losers” and the smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” With his “Fifty Shades” single on the main track list of the record, the lyrical melody makes a recurring theme as a motif on “Acquainted” and other tracks.
With “Kiss Land” The Weeknd only featured one collab with Drake on the track “Live For.” On “Beauty”, the singer brings out musicians like Ed Sheeran, whom he admires; Kanye West for the production on “Tell Your Friends” and British singer Labrinth. However, one of the most notable contributions comes from Lana Del Rey on the track “Prisoner.” In a near-perfect match made in heaven, the parallel between the two singers begs the question as to why it’s taken so long for this collab. Both vocalists feature R&B and alternative influences, reflected in their lyrics that detail the anguish and lust for romance rooted in destruction, to the point of toxicity.
The lyrical themes range from the opulence of the singer’s lifestyle . He even manages to define his persona and career in the span of two lines on the track “Tell Your Friends”: “I’m that nigga with the hair/Singing ’bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.” At it’s most delicate, the acoustic ballad “Shameless” takes a spin on “Heart Shaped Box” but even in a veiled attempt to sound romantic, comes off as coercive and manipulative. At face value, much of The Weeknd’s lyrics can be taken as songs about love, but under the surface lies a foreboding danger that in an average person would be seen as a major red flag.
With “Beauty Behind the Madness”, The Weeknd’s signature brand of sleaze finally finds it’s place in the world of mainstream pop.