The Weeknd goes big on Beauty Behind the Madness

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      The Weeknd
      Beauty Behind the Madness (XO/Republic)

      When the Weeknd first emerged in 2011 with a trilogy of buzzed-about mix tapes, the Toronto singer born Abel Tesfaye shied away from the press and rarely made public appearances. His reclusive tendencies increased the mystique of his shadowy “noir & B” songs, which typically concerned destructive tales of sex and drug abuse. Since then, his public persona has become more approachable, but most of his lyrics on Beauty Behind the Madness continue to dwell on the same debauched themes.

      Musically speaking, this latest LP is a bright, big-budget blockbuster that marks a departure from the nocturnal stylings of his early work. The gorgeously lush pop sound means that Tesfaye’s raunchy words, once so integral to his aesthetic, are now clunky and out of place. On the sonically stately soul ballad “Tell Your Friends”, he invites everyone to “tell your friends” about his love of drugs and promiscuous sex; on the woozy “Often”, he boasts that he partakes in drugs and promiscuous sex “often”. Notice a trend here?

      What’s particularly frustrating about the Weeknd’s lyrical limitations is that, when he steps outside of his hedonism-glorifying comfort zone, the results are sublime. In particular, the grandly orchestral “Earned It (Fifty Shades of Grey)” is a subtly unsettling ballad, while the juggernaut single “Can’t Feel My Face” utilizes a veiled “drug-as-love” metaphor that makes it easy to forget about the words and get lost in the banging beat.

      The Weeknd clearly knows his way around an unforgettable pop hook; if he can widen his horizons as a storyteller, he’ll be the complete package.