The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness and the changing shape of the popstar persona
When House of Balloons dropped in 2011, The Weeknd didn’t seem like your typical popstar. Rather than a carefully orchestrated PR campaign, here was an immaculately produced mixtape that was fully formed, less a rough-edged debut than an assertive statement, something imbued with purpose yet cloaked beneath impenetrable anonymity.
House of Balloons – and, to a lesser extent, the two mixtapes that followed that year – was a corrosive corrective to contemporary R&B, inexorably eating away at the genre’s romantic sheen to reveal the toxicity underneath. Seduction reimagined as coercion, a narcotic haze polluted by impurities. The Weeknd, at this point, was less the antithesis of a pop star than its inversion. His lyrics ruptured R&B’s allure to reveal a grotesque creature of misogyny and implicit abuse, shambling through a broken party of faceless women and a sense of lingering shame. It was a great pop record because of how much it wasn’t.
In 2015, The Weeknd – or Abel Tesfaye, having long since shed his secrecy – is a bona fide popstar. His songs have accompanied The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades alike, and assumed the apex of the Billboard Top 200. His new album, Beauty Behind the Madness (its name alone suggesting the change in focus), features cameos from the likes of Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey and stands poised to be one of the biggest selling records of this year, having debuted on the Billboard 200 at number one. Beauty Behind the Madness exceeds the empty exercise of Kiss Land – an insipid, forgettable drudge of a thing – but the acidity of those mixtapes has been irrevocably diluted.
Change – whether growth or decay – was inevitable, of course. For all the potency of The Weeknd’s opening salvo, they were defined by a sense of stasis. A re-creation of those records wouldn’t have been so much a sophomore slump as a sophomore plummet. If we regard Kiss Land as a corrective, then, there’s a lot to like about Beauty Behind the Madness – particularly sonically. While it skews closer to traditional pop production, there’s a shimmer of vitality to the album’s first few tracks in particular. Opening cut “Real Life” enlivens its MJ-crooning over aching strings with a shuddering snarl; “Tell Your Friends” takes a leaf from another Jacko-enthusiast, starting like “Bound 2” and ending like “Gorgeous”; the sinister distance of “The Hills” feels like the midway point between “Billie Jean” and the intoxicating miasma that consumed House of Balloons.
Yet as Beauty Behind the Madness progresses, that vitality bleeds away. The begrudging sense of resignation that defines “Often” proves to be less an outlier than a bellwether for the record’s back half, which pairs its breathtakingly ill-conceived feature vocals – within songs which do no favours to Tesfaye, Sheeran or Del Rey – with unconvincing tilts at disco-pop (“In The Night”) before concluding with a clumsy pseudo-power ballad (“Angel”). Tesfaye’s vocals are undeniably the best they’ve ever been, but his talents are reduced by these perfunctory, hollow tracks. They’re reminiscent of the film that enabled his ascendance, products that smooth over any underlying implications of abuse with a slick, accessible exterior.
Such is the progression from talented anonym to commercial superstar. Over at FasterLouder, Essential alum Richard S. He argues that Beauty Behind the Madness represents the “first truly post-internet pop album”. I don’t entirely buy the argument – mostly because I never really believed that “file-sharing and digital recording technology were going to kill the major-label system”. Major labels might not be selling as many records, but whatever the critical number of records to sell to attain commercial success is, I’m unconvinced artists are regularly going to get there without at least some complicity in the major label superstructure. The Weeknd’s path to stardom is as emblematic of post-internet stardom – uncredited YouTube videos attracting widespread attention – as it is of the myth of pre-internet success – a combination of grinding, luck and getting the right producers and PR people on your side.
The most interesting thing about this album, though, is how uncomfortably Tesfaye fits into the popstar persona. He’s no longer that caustic, destabilising presence, but neither does he seem entirely at ease in the role he’s assumed since. While I don’t regard Beauty Behind the Madness as anything “post-internet”, I do feel like the progression of The Weekend’s persona encapsulates the evolution of identity in the internet era. The construction of his identity – anonymous, cautious, ambiguous – epitomises the initial promise of the internet. You could be anybody, you could be nobody; hordes of unnamed individuals behind screen names and avatars and ‘xo’s.
By 2011, though, that promise was already swiftly disintegrating; Facebook had made privacy uncool and ‘anonymous’ became synonymous with hordes of abusive Twitter eggs and faux-revolutionaries on 4chan. Now ‘internet identity’ suggests a carefully curated #brand; a precariously balanced blend of insouciance and seriousness that approximates humanity. On Beauty Behind the Madness, Tesfaye finds himself caught somewhere in the middle, trapped between the commercially palatable and the subversive.
When he sings “Singing 'bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill” – pleading for the listener to “tell their friends about it” – it feels less like braggadocio than resignation, an imprisoned, plaintive cry for help. Tesfaye stares out from the record sleeve, his eyes possessing an infinite vacancy, his image torn and reconstructed like an abandoned tour poster repasted to a bathroom wall. He looks lost, trapped within the image he constructed. You almost feel sorry for him.