Here it is, the unlikeliest contender for Christian rock song of the year: “Angel” by The Weeknd. Over piano chords with all the uplift of a hymn, guitars in soft-rock reverie, and the kind of thudding drum sounds that kill on megachurch stages, Abel Tesfaye asks the heavenly figure of the song title to redeem him, to “bring the light.” For the song’s finale—the closing moments of the 25-year-old Toronto R&B artist’s new album, Beauty Behind the Madness—he and the singer Maty Noyes harmonize with what sounds like a children’s choir, proclaiming, over and over, “I hope you find somebody to love.”
That this song hasn’t already led to mocking memes placing Tesfaye’s big, knotted updo in 700 Club promos is largely a testament to the power of branding. A song like “Angel,” as cheesy and beautiful as it is, can’t be evaluated outside of the persona created by the rest of Tesfaye’s music—that of a dead-eyed hedonist, so addicted to cocaine and meaningless sex that neither is even fun anymore. No fan of The Weeknd really believes he’s getting salvation. The plea is poignant because it’s futile.
Though he isn’t yet a household name, Tesfaye has in the past few years demonstrated the same kind of PR savvy usually associated with Marvel movie rollouts and Taylor Swift. When his mixtapes of depraved, depressing, and gorgeous R&B hit the Internet in 2011, he kept his face and identity hidden even as the acclaim piled up, thereby building his mystique. After a largely ignored major-label debut, he told his new and powerful bosses that he wanted to become the biggest pop star in the world—but also maintain his old fan base. Voila: There he was, with a Rated-R verse on the latest hit from the normally PG Ariana Grande. There he was, offering a sneakily catchy waltz for the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. There he was, on stage at the Apple Music debut, performing a Max Martin-produced single about druggy lust.
That single, “Can’t Feel My Face,” is an undeniably delightful Michael Jackson ripoff targeted at dance floors and the number-one slot on the Hot 100, both of which it has now conquered. It is also, contrary to some common expectations about pop-crossover albums, an anomaly on Beauty Behind the Madness. Most of the record is mid-tempo and atmospherically spooky, R&B rendered in modern hip-hop textures, just like The Weeknd has always been. After a few warning-siren-like guitar stabs, the album kicks off with Tesfaye crooning, “Tell ’em this boy wasn’t mean’t for lovin’,” and most of the rest of the songs explicitly or implicitly return to that thesis statement. The complete seriousness with which Tesfaye insists he has no soul is, at times, unintentionally hilarious; one attempt to avoid the L word has him crooning, “Girl, I'm so glad we’re”—what’s the word?—“acquainted.” But you can’t say the act isn’t convincing. When the spry “Can’t Feel My Face” kicks in at track seven, it feels like momentary flirtation with straight society’s ideals about romance, and even then Tesfaye can only confess to loving a sensation, not a person.