Beauty Behind the Madness

1. “Sellout” is a buzzword in music, and art in general, that I avoid like the plague. It’s frequently used as a hollow criticism of an underground artist updating their sound to a poppier one for the purpose of expanding their sound. Artists like Sia, Modest Mouse, Sonic Youth, Twenty One Pilots, and Fall Out Boy have all been accused of being sellouts in the past, and regardless of whether I enjoy their music or not, I’d still defend them from being called sellouts just because they went mainstream: it takes a real lack of integrity or monetary motivation to “sell out.”

With that being said, “Beauty Behind the Madness” is the biggest sellout of a genuine talent in recent memory, and it really honestly pains me to say that because I like The Weeknd.

2. Now this is certainly better than the utter failure that was Kiss Land, being as there’s at least some good stuff here. But this is a deliberate, and more importantly, calculated shift into the mainstream that doesn’t seek to improve The Weeknd’s work, but instead make it more accessible to the masses. The genuine experiments and original sound that made up the Weeknd’s mixtape Trilogy are missing, replaced by similar, squeaky clean elements and production that give the illusion of the alternative, without the edge. The songwriting’s dumber here too; most of this is the same subject matter The Weeknd’s been mining for 5 years, but simplified and one-dimensional. I’d be fine with simpler if the sound and songs were there, but it’s really that simple: they’re not.

3. Before we go any further, here’s a bit of history: The Weeknd was something of a divisive figure in his early years, dropping three mixtapes in 2011 to varying degrees of critical success with each. Echoes of Silence, the best of the three, was also the last, and showed a great deal of improvement over House of Balloons and Thursday, both in sound and songwriting; compare Thursday’s “Rolling Stone,” a lazy and lesser rewrite of the ending of “The Birds, Pt. 1,” to the inventive, freaky voice pitching on “Initiation” that’s somehow not annoying, and instead accentuated by the frantic, moaning beat behind The Weeknd’s ominous delivery; “I got a lot of boys” and the following lines are dramatic in the best way. It’s this nauseating intensity and the creative production (and the freaky sex, I suppose) that kept me interested in Mr. Tesfaye’s career. Artistry, growth, musicality: what I like to see.

4. Luckily for your average pop lover, no such alternative-learning moments clutter up this clean, overproduced waste of talent! [EDIT 9/5/16: What a mean thing to say, Erik. Fix that right now.] But this experimentation would not last. Between 2011 and 2015, The Weeknd spent a lot of time clearing up his sound from dark, abstract, abrasive, well-arranged R&B into a glossy, tame, unremarkable product, and it obviously paid off: two number one hits, an Academy Award nomination, and two million copies of this album alone sold. 

5. OK, the good first: There’s the pitched up vocal samples and nocturnal synthscape of “Often;” the choruses of “The Hills,” which is a fresher-produced take on House of Balloons’ sheer noise; the groaning, wobbly synth sounds between The Weeknd’s delivery on the intro of “Real Life;” “Can’t Feel My Face’s” unbelievable bassline (and nice opening bars) that keep me returning to it again and again (despite the silly, disingenuous lyrics); the lo-fi acoustic intro of “Shameless;” the pre-choruses and choruses of “In The Night” (despite the silly, disingenuous lyrics); “Dark Times” reminding me of that Pixies song “Silver” crossed with with Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (who appears on the song); and… well, that’s all I can think of. Damn.

6. As far as the bad, that’s a whole ballpark to its own: “Losers,” “Tell Your Friends” “As You Are,” “Acquainted,” “Prisoner,” and “Angel” are all pretty blatant throwaways. “Losers” is a bland piano-driven straight up pop tune with some sparkling “Subterranean Homesick Alien” keyboards at the 1:14 mark that sort of work but don’t sound like The Weeknd at all and are thus out of place; “Tell Your Friends” sounds like a second-rate Kanye West beat (and is, in fact), with some really unlikable falsetto and a chorus that consists of just layering The Weeknd’s monotone over the left and right channels so you think it’s a climax even though it isn’t; “Acquainted” is your standard R&B/trap ballad-type and is a lesser retread of “The Hills” without the parts that made it interesting; “As You Are” is yet another ballad with achingly disingenuous lyrics (“Show me your broken heart and all your scars / Baby I’ll take you as you are”) and incredibly strange choices for percussion (the snare sounds like it’s being slapped with an open palm and the hi-hat barely exists at all); “Prisoner’s” got the same cut-and-paste lyrical style as the previous two songs (“I’d be nothing without your love” would be passable if he actually sung like he meant it; is The Weeknd becoming Justin Timberlake?) and a Lana Del Ray feature I actually like a lot (“Love will always be a lesson, let’s get out of its way” is an excellent line I wish the album had more of); and “Angel” is the snooziest cut on the album, and in all honesty I don’t have anything to say other than it sounds like a cruddy Michael Jackson song.

Meanwhile, “Earned It,” everyone’s favorite spanking child of the album, is indeed a piece of shit, and finds The Weeknd doing his very best Drake impression and screeching with his balls between his forefinger and thumb at a minute in. Let’s toss that too, then. We’re left with the songs I mentioned before: “Often,” “The Hills,” “Real Life,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” “Shameless,” “In The Night,” and “Dark Times,” and in all honesty most of them are mediocre too. I’m hanging on to “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Often,” because they’re at least somewhat tuneful and interesting to listen to. “The Hills” is garbage, though; like I mentioned, the only thing good here is the chorus, with just some of the worst vocals and lyrics to ever appear on a Weeknd verse (“I’m just tryin to get you out the friendzone…” is pathetic in all the wrong ways.) The rest is take it or leave it for its various good parts, if you can even call them that; I’d call them passable. A single good moment in a song can save it if it’s used appropriately, but many of the good moments are fleeting, or come at the beginning of the songs.

7. As I mentioned before, my main problem with the album is the lack of good tunes. I may have harped on the over-production and the blatant commercialism, but really the songs just aren’t there. Most of them try to skirt by on The Weeknd trying a new sound every track and seeing what sticks, and a killer to filler ratio to about 2:12 is pretty terrible. I’d say “At least there’s a couple good songs,” but I’d be lying; most of these songs come down to one good idea surrounded by many unremarkable, or worse, bad ones. The lyrics aren’t as interesting as on any of the mixtapes, nor does the production have the same punch. I swear to god I wanted to like this album.

8. And just so I don’t have people jumping down my throat claiming I didn’t talk about the lyrics: “When I’m fucked up that’s the real me” could have been a great line if it didn’t sound so whiny against every other line of the chorus; “Mama called me destructive, oh yeah / Said it’d ruin me one day, yeah / Cause every woman that loved me, oh yeah / I seemed to push them away” could have been powerful if it wasn’t so fucking cheesily prefaced by that mama line; “Stupid’s next to I love you” and “I’m never rocking white, I’m like a racist” are shitty punchlines that aren’t even punchlines; “I usually love sleeping all alone / This time around bring your friend with you / But we ain’t really going to sleep at all” begs the question why that last line even needed to exist (does he think we’re that stupid that we won’t get it?); “You got me puttin’ time in, time in / Nobody got / me feeling this way / You probably think I’m lying, lying / I’m used to bitches comin’ right ‘way” could maybe have been romantic if that last line didn’t undo everything (taking notes from Kanye, are we?); “So I love when you call unexpected / Cause I hate when the moment’s expected” is lazy songwriting; and finally “Only losers go to school” is destroying the moral fabric of Canada’s youth (and the United States’ too.) I think that covers all of my bases.

9. The album cover is kinda neat. I like it.

10. Trilogy is currently available on Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. I invite you to listen to that instead. Or 808s and Heartbreak. Whatever works.

B-

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