From the grand opening of electric chords on "Real Life," one can't help but feel that the Weeknd's second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness, is a momentous occasion; it's on this album that Abel Tesfaye makes the transition from cult favourite to icon. The brooding nourish R&B crooner preserves the spacey magnificence that has set him apart from other artists of a similar ilk, but does so with superior production to that of his previous works; he's now armed with a sound that is larger and more artfully orchestrated.
It feels like the guiltless revelry that the Weeknd has enjoyed since the release of House of Balloons in 2011 is slowly coming to an end on BBTM. The unabashedly cold, distant Tesfaye is still all over the record, as proven on the chorus for the hit "The Hills," on which he warns, "I only love it when you touch me, not feel me." Even though there are tracks about selfish, egotistical love like "Shameless," the enigmatic singer is periodically conflicted by longing simultaneously for both affection and distance, unable to reconcile the two. This is manifested on the bluesy "Dark Times" which features Ed Sheeran and Tesfaye describing their respective habits during depression, often involving women, booze or drugs, or all three. The Weeknd is still the contemporary model for hedonism, but he's facing his issues head-on: "Mama called me destructive, oh yeah / Said it'd ruin me one day," he sings on opener "Real Life."
Tesfaye can't help but invite comparisons between himself and the King of Pop on many parts of the record (for both his voice and the sheer number of singles on the album), but the most audibly Jackson moment is on "In The Night"; the song was inspired by Marilyn Monroe and is about a girl who is a victim of sexual abuse. Introduced by an electric '80s drum track and supported by synth, the song builds to an extremely emotional chorus: "In the night she hears him calling / In the night she's dancing to relieve the pain." The song's structure parallels "Billie Jean," with an inviting pre-chorus and an incendiary hook that the Weeknd delivers passionately. Yet, while an affected Tesfaye commiserates with the female subject of the song, he's not above watching her dance for money.
At BBTM's end, "Angel" is Abel Tesfaye's way of severing ties with intimacy, hoping that an unspecified "you" will "find somebody to love" — presumably a partner that will treat her right. The six-minute power ballad is the Tesfaye's final rejection of innocence, having decided to lead the cold and removed life he is comfortable with.
The Weeknd delivers an inspired performance throughout BBTM and draws upon the robust work of a host of excellent collaborating producers, including Jason "DaHeala" Quenneville, Max Martin, Ben "Billions" Diehl, Kanye West and the Weeknd's long-time musical partner Illangelo. The collection is more digestible than we're used to from the Torontonian, but he succeeds in repurposing the pop genre to suit his talents, even managing to fit in a few vintage Trilogy-esque daydream drone moments ("Acquainted" and "As You Are") and a couple of guitar solos (most notably on the Kanye West-produced "Tell Your Friends," whose solo is reminiscent to that from West's own "Devil in a New Dress").
Beauty Behind the Madness proves that the Weeknd can thrive in the mainstream, and while the lyrics aren't overtly profound, he's proven that he is more versatile than previously thought, which is perhaps of greater importance at this stage in his career. (XO/Republic)