The best art is the often most confessional. It is the darkest and deepest corners of the mind that give fruit to the most compelling literature and music. These works challenge us to look within ourselves, and confront our deepest fears and demons. “Beauty Behind the Madness,” the new album by R&B singer/songwriter The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) is a work that attempts this.
Delving deep into the mind of its creator, the album provides a compelling image of a deeply conflicted superstar. Cocky yet insecure, tender yet sexually depraved, the man presented on the album is at once despicable and sympathetic. The record, containing the intimacy of a diary entry or a therapy session, is made universal by the singer’s pop sensibilities and stunning vocal capacity. It is a complex character analysis in the guise of a mainstream R&B album.
When listened to on a superficial level, The Weeknd’s music often comes across as arrogant and vapid. He boasts about his drug use, his sexual conquests, and his fame. He employs casual misogyny in his discussion of women, and overall exhibits the attitude of a care-free party boy. However, when listened to closely, one can sense loneliness behind the singer’s empty boasts.
On the song “The Hills,” which tells of a late night hook up, he sings lines like “I just f**cked two b*tches before I saw you” and “drugs start to feeling like it’s decaf,” giving the impression of a braggadocios, drugged-up womanizer . Later, in the chorus however, he sings “I only love it when you touch me, not feel me/when I’m f**cked up, that’s the real me.” This leads one to believe that the hedonistic pursuits of the song come from a desire to escape one’s life, instead of from a more narcissistic place. Instead of being put off by The Weeknd’s inflated ego, the listener becomes sympathetic to the emptiness and futility of the singer’s lifestyle.
Musically, the song follows a similar trajectory. Echoing ambient sounds provide a lonely, late night feeling in the song’s verses, while the aggressive bass drum of the chorus exudes pompousness. Overall, the song works on many thematic and musical levels, reflecting the complex nature of The Weeknd’s character.
Even the album’s lightest moments contain signs of inner torment and struggle. The hit single “Can’t Feel My Face” is upbeat and funky in a way that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson. Upon listening closely to the lyrics, however, one can sense the same desperation and despair. “I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” he sings, in a clear reference to using drugs to cope. The evident frustration of the song is continued in the chorus when The Weeknd sings “she told me you’ll never be in love.” It is clear from lyrics like this that there is a deep need for love and connection that is going unmet.
While the album may be too self-involved for some listeners, “Beauty Behind the Madness” is novel in the way it uses a pop format to provide a nuanced and honest portrait of deep fears and insecurities. It is a thrilling musical experience that fosters an intimate relationship between artist and listener.