Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, Johny Blue and Lindsay Haddox chat about The Weeknd's new album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
Ryan Middleton: There have been few artists making the impact that The Weeknd has been this year. He has had arguably the song of the summer in "Can't Feel My Face" and his bonafide bedroom anthems "Earned It," "Often" and "The Hills" have set a new standard for sensual R&B.
Now his highly anticipated sophomore album Beauty Behind The Madness is here. The album is dripping with with steamy sexual references, but just like the man behind the words, there is a lot more to this LP than what meets the eye. What are your guys' initial thoughts?
Johny Blue: My first introduction to The Weeknd was via his remix of Drake's "Trust Issues." Since then I've had a bittersweet relationship with him. While I appreciated the ambient R&B haze his music is always enveloped in, both his voice and lyrical content have always thrown me off. Unfortunate for me, considering that most people find those to be where his true appeal lies.
It's been a big year for Abel Tesfaye as his brand shifted from underground Alt&B prince to Billboard It-Man. And while his VMA performance and Apple Music commercial solidify him as a bonafide pop force, it seems his music is still lost in translation. One part mixtape, one part pop album, Beauty Behind the Madness finds the least likely pop star trying to find his way through the mainstream maze while still attempting to hold on to his identify. When left in his own world he sounds confident, poised and in control (See "The Hills", "Often" and "Real Life"), but when pulled away from his sound the results can be as awkward as his VMA two step. "Can't Feel My Face" is still my least favorite, with "In the Night" following closely behind. Too much knock off Michael Jackson vibes for me.
Lindsay Haddox: Ever since first hearing The Weeknd I could not get enough of his voice. I am always impressed by what he does musically and after hearing Beauty Behind the Madness I can say that his effect on me is still the same. The first song on the record "Real Life" is put together phenomenally and is a great opener for the record. I also love the instrumental on that song, and in general the album seems to have a really nice flow.
I love the use of string instruments he has throughout the whole album, which seems to pay tribute to some rock and stray away from strictly the R&B category and while I do see the Jackson influences (especially in "Can't Feel My Face") I don't think it's a bad thing. I don't see him becoming more mainstream as him getting lost and not being able to create a good album, I feel that he is merely growing as an artist and getting himself some radio hits/number one singles along the way. I have definitely listened to the whole album through multiple times and see myself continuing to.
Carolyn Menyes: It is interesting to see Abel make his way through as he transitions from niche artist to a bona fide hitmaker. I think in its essence that Beauty Behind the Madness is still very much a Weeknd album.
It's interesting to have your perspective on this album, John, and I think you're going to force us all to think a little more critically. I actually do understand your half pop album/half mixtape critique. Some of this record is still really, really raw and gritty and other parts are really polished pieces of pop. I think what helps a little more to bridge this gap is the subject matter.
Let's take "Can't Feel My Face," for instance, the album's lead single and a total Jackson rip-off courtesy of Max Martin of all people. I think this song is a total banger and I embrace it's old school vibe and that hook for days. The drop into the chorus is beyond infectious. However, I can see how this sound is a little jarring for a longtime Weeknd fan and I can see how, to you, it would sound a little force. But, what still makes this song such a Weeknd track is its subject matter. He loves drugs and f*cking b*tches, as he says on "Tell Your Friends," and that's 100 percent what this song is.
So, John, I get you think this album is uneven? What are your thoughts on this, Ryan?
RM: I get where you are coming from John with the dual nature of the album. There are the hits and then the other tracks, but I think he needs to do that to try and bridge the gap between his new found star status to the Kiss Land The Weeknd. It could also just be a timing thing that some of these were recorded and chosen well before tracks like "The Hills" and "Can't Feel My Face" were bubbling up into the smashes they are now and rather selected to tell the story he has in this LP.
While he does deviate from the theme of love at times, The Weeknd is a simple man who just loves to f*ck and do drugs. Unlike most pop-R&B albums, The Weeknd, actually creates a story with Beauty Behind the Madness, albeit a very explicit and raw one. It is a much darker and honest view of love then a more idealistic and toned down romantic view of relationships. The Weeknd knows hos in 2015.
A lot of the attention has gone to "Can't Feel My Face," but another jam is "Losers," which has the same type of throwback feel and has the hit potential of "Can't Feel My Face" (bold statement number one). It sticks out like the Max Martin-produced hit, but it is also good to see some diversity in there as I think we would be criticizing him if there were just 14 copies of "Earned It."
JB: Okay maybe I need to give it another listen or two. Again, for me The Weeknd's appeal was always the sound and not the subject matter, so maybe that is why I find this album (easily his most musically diverse) a bit jarring.
As I work my way through listen number two I do note that he does stay pretty on topic and I commend him for bringing that kind of consistency to an album that would have felt really disconnected otherwise. I will also note a level of consistency in the albums cinematic nature. It's no surprise his biggest hit prior to "Can't Feel My Face" was "Earned It," from a movie soundtrack. I get a lot of '70s soul feels especially from records like "Tell Your Friends" and "Losers", even though Labrinth sounds more at home amongst the soul claps and piano riffs than our Canadian friend.
I do now realize that the album's first single "Often" was released over a year ago which could also speak to why the album feels a bit torn to me, considering how much his commercial appeal has increased in that time span. How do we feel about the features? My opinion on the Labrinth record kind of follows through to Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey's contributions.
LH: A sad but true fact is that there comes a time for an artist -- who wants to see success-- where they seem to basically have to sell out and I don't mean that in a harsh way towards this record. The Weeknd went from being a feature on someone like Drake's song to having some of the biggest hits and it only makes sense that his newest album produced multiple radio hits. When I first heard "Can't Feel My Face" it reminded me of something Bruno Mars would be singing but you cannot deny how catchy the tune is. This leads me to saying hearing him go more mainstream in certain songs I expected.
The Ed Sheeran feature sounds just as dark as its name "Dark Times" and has a lot of soul to it as we have said this record has in general. I like this feature more then most and find myself pulled into listening to it more but I am not in any way disappointed with the features. Abel could have had whoever he wanted on this record and put multiple features but he kept it simple and had artists on that you may not have expected. I am intrigued with his decision on who to feature but I appreciate that he didn't throw a ton of rappers on here and instead had featured artists that spoke to the tone of music he was creating.
I do really want to shed light on the last song on the record, "Angel." As we have been speaking about The Weeknd changing his sound I thought this song sounded a lot like some of his older stuff and is very much a love song towards a girl who he is not with anymore but still hopes she finds someone. To me this song is what The Weeknd does best and the reason we have grown to love him.
CM: Wow. I have so much territory to work off of here. Y'all went IN.
I can't tell whether or not The Weeknd sold out; that always feels like such a harsh term to me, so I guess I'm leaning toward saying no. I do think he's edging toward a more a pop sensibility, but he's once again, bridging the gaps in a way that I think makes a lot of sense for where he's at in his career. And adding in a hook to your music and pumping up that dance-ability does not a sell out make.
You mentioned that "Often" was technically this album's first single, release in July 2014. That's actually one of my favorite songs and I think it brings together the extremes of Kiss Land and something like "Can't Feel My Face" into something more centered. It has an inherent PBR&B feel with those classic sexin' lyrics you expect from The Weeknd. But the way the chorus flows is very, very catchy. You could hear this in the club easily.
Saying "Losers" could be as big of a single as "Can't Feel My Face" is a very, very bold statement. I love how different it is than a lot of the rest of the album, with the trumpets and the piano -- it somehow feels very New Orleans to me. But, I think it lacks a meaty hook, so I'd be shocked if it even gets promoted off the album.
I also think that the features were very on #brand for The Weeknd. Labrinth is cool. Lana Del Rey is very cool. Ed Sheeran isn't quite so cool but he can pull out this jazzy, R&B edge that works shockingly well on this sort of record. I was actually surprised that "Dark Times" worked as well as it did. I like Sheeran's album x a lot and I like this record/The Weeknd in general too, so I don't know why I expected that song to be a mess, but I did. Instead, I think they played off each other well.
RM: I do agree that he has gone a little more towards the mainstream, but the mainstream has also shifted towards his sound as a result of his success. His hooks have gotten better and because of that, his tracks have gotten a lot catchier more radio-friendly.
I will give you those bold statements to drop an earthquake up in here (Labrinth anybody?). Even though this may be the smallest collab, it fit the feature the best and tells a different story about Abel dropping out of high school at the age of 17 to pursue his music dream, which has turned out pretty good if I might add.
The Lana Del Rey is the most straight up feature, though her vocal fits perfectly on the track. Ed Sheeran blends in with "Dark Times" in a way that stretches himself beyond his own guitar-wielding, cheery pop sensibilities. It is good to see them both get pushed in this darker direction artistically.
Lindsay I am glad you brought up "Angel." It completes the story arc that The Weeknd is trying to tell. It could be about some woman in his past he wants to find love, but it also acknowledges that while the women he has been dealing with throughout the album are not perfect, neither is he. "I'm so desensitized to these emotions yeah, no emotions, baby."
He opens that idea in "Real Life" saying "I am not worth the misery / I am better off when I am unloved."
The Weeknd is known for his hits, but there are some deeper conflicts that he wants to express to the world through his lyrics.
JB: Great observations, you guys actually made me revisit "Angel" and it is a really well written and produced song. It's an excellent closer because it ties up the record nicely and feels neither mixtape or pop, but somewhere in the middle. "Tell Your Friends" has gotten a few plays from me as well. It's an interesting marriage of The Weeknd's raunchy swagger and Kanye West's College Dropout era production. This album was clearly an experimental effort, seeing how they could take The Weeknd's signature and mesh it with other sounds.
Ryan, I like the point you made about the mainstream shifting towards his sound. It is true that while many alternative acts have dabbled in mainstream sounds to gain a more wide spread appeal, the mainstream itself has developed quite the ear for alternative acts and this project is a great example of an artist trying to meet his listeners in the middle. As a result he can take a pop record like "Can't Feel My Face" (which production-wise could have easily gone to Maroon 5 or Bruno Mars) and infuse it with his unique brand of sex driven R&B. I'm curious to see how much further he can blur the lines as he moves into the next project. As far as next single goes I wouldn't be surprised if "In the Night" gets the push, it falls in nicely behind "Face."
LH: To focus in on the mainstream talk I agree that it is shifting more towards his sound. That's where I was going when I first brought it up and I don't think that it is a bad thing to be so called mainstream. That's how artists make a lot of their money by releasing singles that are ear friendly to their audience. Also I think that has helped The Weeknd because when you look back to The Trilogy you don't really hear many single worthy songs -- nothing wrong with that at all -- but Beauty Behind The Madness really allows you to get the best of both worlds, old school Weeknd and the newer stuff. As the audience/listeners we really get to see how Abel has grown as an artist with his newest record.
I see what John is saying about "In the Night" becoming the next single, it would definitely pair well with "Can't Feel My Face" and I can see not only myself, but others having an enjoyable jam session in their cars to "In the Night." To talk about how he has chosen his singles is pretty interesting because "The Hills" came out a little before "Can't Feel My Face" but they put off making "The Hills" a single until he was just about to release his album, but I had heard it back in May. I think it's because it's a little more raunchy and harder sounding then the first two singles he released before. Just something interesting to think about when it comes to why artists do what they do.
Also a notable song is "Shameless" it sounds very raw to me and the guitar in it absolutely slays. I don't see it as a single, but I do see it as a song to point out on the record because it's really pretty great. I'm also a sucker for good guitar solos in a song.
CM: If you're talking sounding just like Michael Jackson, look no further than "In the Night." He even has the intonations down to a T. I think it could work as a single.
I'm glad we're talking about "The Hills," because it's actually the official lead single of this record but it got slightly pushed to the side when "Can't Feel My Face" took off. That's not to give "The Hills" no credit; as "Face" sits at No. 1 on the charts this week, "The Hills" is holding its own at No. 4. That's no song to shake a stick at -- it's a total hit in its own right. I like it because it's just so the epitome of The Weeknd. This whole record is, in a way. This feels so transitionary. We have The Weeknd of the past in something like "Tell Your Friends," but we also have this poppy dude. I like it.
JB: In the wonderful world of PBR&B I've always found myself more a fan of acts like Miguel and Frank Ocean. Which says a lot of my critique of The Weeknd, considering it's his raw, blatant subject matter and nasally falsetto that's always turned me away. Maybe I just prefer a couple more layers on my moody R&B crooners. Now that he's become the most visible of the genre I have to commend him for actually pushing to find a balance while some acts just stay their musical courses (Lana Del Rey) and others completely go pop (Ed Sheeran). While BBTM may not get another listen from me anytime soon, I've found new respect for Abel and will definitely be on the listen for what comes after this, because I feel like the next project will be where he truly finds the balance I feel this one still lacked, and create something a little more my speed.
LH: I agree "The Hills" is a fantastic song and one of my favorite songs off the record and I'm very glad to see it getting radio time. This record is a big transition record for The Weeknd, but unlike other artists who get lost when they have transitional record I feel that he has nailed it. I was extremely excited to hear what this record was going to sound and be like and I cannot say I was disappointed with the outcome. I've been a fan of his since I heard The Trilogy and I'll definitely continue to fan girl over The Weeknd. Unlike John, I like The Weeknd a bit more then Miguel (still a fan) but will also be listening to this record on repeat for a while.
RM: With Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd cemented his status as one of the biggest stars in the world. It has been a quick rise for Tesfaye on the back of some massive singles, but putting out a complete record that is able to tell a story of love and internal struggle puts him one peg above his competition. He experiments with production, going back to some more throwback funky elements and even letting loose some guitars for solos, but the R&B dripping with sex remains a constant. BBTM is out just in time for Grammy consideration and don't be surprised to see it take home some hardware.
CM: The Weeknd is on the brink of potentially being the biggest name in music these days, and I think if he plays his cards right, he could be the new king of R&B. This is a change I'll definitely welcome, since I've been bumping to PBR&B for a minute now. With the moody subject matter, blend of hooks and that distinct Weeknd essence and vocals that seem to rival MJ, I think we have something great here.