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The Weeknd’s mainstream breakout combines dark R&B with pop

Drug-addled tales encounter new moral elements, promising mainstream appeal

When Abel Tesfaye dropped a few tracks in 2011 under the moniker “The Weeknd,” it was at a moment when R&B had a taken a turn for the weird.

The sex factor so native to the genre was doubled — nay, quadrupled — in strange ballads, while any semblance of emotion was completely erased by drug-induced numbness. Yet this bleak brand of sound proved as addictive as the substances that inspired it. Tesfaye’s sweet falsetto and explicit lyricism floated perfectly above unconventional song structures, haunting hipster basement parties like a horny forlorn ghost.

The Weeknd remained elusive behind a brooding haze throughout the majority of his career. Even after the release of his popular mix tape, “Trilogy,” in 2011 and his first proper album, “Kiss Land,” in 2013, the soulless R&B man lacked a public image and a larger fan base. That has all changed with the release of his second major work, “Beauty Behind the Madness” — an ambitious chart-topping collection of Goth-pop hits.

For some, the pivot from dark recluse to mainstream superstar may seem sharp, but it is easy to trace his steps. There was the collaborative 2014 hit, “Love Me Harder,” with pop star Ariana Grande. Then he recorded the “50 Shades of Grey” theme song, a breakout hit called “Earned It,” which packaged his crude sex appeal in a more palatable orchestral beat. The Weeknd also bumped up his live performances, culminating in a recent MTV Video Music Awards rendition of his latest hit this year.

The moves were calculated and successful. Tesfaye is aiming for Michael Jackson-Madonna status, and he just might make it.

Any ambitious star needs a team. Forgoing his signature loner status, The Weeknd recruited the best for his sophomore effort, and they delivered. Working with Max Martin, the Swedish hit-maker with 21 No. 1 tracks to his name, Tesfaye has crafted sleek, accessible pop music like “Can’t Feel My Face,” arguably his catchiest tune to date.

But while he may be accepting outside influence, he also manages to stay true to his nihilistic mantra of sex, drugs and self-induced destruction. “Can’t Feel My Face” is delivered with such upbeat bounce that if you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, you might not realize that it’s about cocaine and dying young.

Another Martin-produced track, “In The Night,” reworks The Weeknd’s impressive falsetto for an eighties-era banger straight out of Michael Jackson’s anthology. But listen past the glossy sonic surface, and you’ll hear the sad tale that is The Weeknd’s trademark.

In other spots, Tesfaye borders on playful. Kanye West gets involved as co-producer on “Tell Your Friends,” a coolly triumphant song powered by a soulful, boldly simplistic piano beat. The track plays like a career-long recap. But it’s more of a reminiscing boast than brood, and it is delivered in such a manner as to suggest this disaffected youth from the streets of Toronto may finally be starting to enjoy himself.

But let’s not get carried away; The Weeknd doesn’t lose sight of his dark past or the style that made him popular. There is plenty of old Weeknd on the album, only now his brand of gloomy R&B production is enhanced by dramatic digital effects for mainstream “oomph.” “The Hills” oscillates between moaned verses about myriad misdeeds and a tremendous, bass-heavy chorus that blows his entire back-catalogue out of the water. On “Acquainted,” he struggles with notions of love and commitment amid booming choruses, only to sink back into poor habits and numb dejection on the tracks “Often” and “Losers.” These same old tales of heartless excess require a bit of awareness on the part of the listener, but damn if they’re not morbidly fascinating and sonically infectious.

In yet other sections of the album, the pop-inspired mainstream effort is laid on too thick. Songs like “Angel” and “Shameless” seem a little absurd, with anachronistic guitar-laden production that doesn’t suit The Weeknd’s style. Long-term Weeknd fans will cringe, especially when they hear the latter tune’s concluding guitar solo — it’s as if Slash barges in like the Kool Aid Man for a piece of the action.

Moreover, these tracks come off as canned. Lyrically and thematically, they clash with The Weeknd’s cold, playboy persona. It’s hard to stick sweet sentiments like “show me your broken heart and all your scars / Baby I’ll take you as you are” and other misogynistic lyrics in the same album. And then there’s the incongruent collaboration with Ed Sheeran on “Dark Times,” a phrase that I imagine has vastly different meanings for the two artists. Presumably, moments like these are a necessary part of garnering widespread appeal. Hey, at least a few are pretty catchy.

The Weeknd opens “Beauty Behind the Madness” with the line, “Tell ’em this boy wasn’t meant for lovin’ / Tell ’em this heart doesn’t stay to one.” He concludes with, “Angel, I knew you were special from the moment I saw you.” The album is certainly rife with such contradictions. Perhaps this is the result of differing opinions and creative inputs as part of a breakout mainstream project. Or maybe it is just the latest iteration of The Weeknd’s swirling moral struggles. Whatever the answer, Tesfaye does send one clear message throughout: He is hell-bent on reaching the top.



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