The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Branding

Beauty Behind the Madness tries to cash in on the Toronto R&B singer’s dead-eyed hedonist persona, but is at its best when it lightens up.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

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.

Even with his recent commercial success, the album doesn't make it inevitable that Tesfaye will, in fact, become the biggest star in the world; at some point, most human bodies must reject his nightlife-vampire shtick as surely as they’d reject the gift of one of his organs. “In the Night,” Martin’s other contribution to the album and—probably not coincidentally—the only other song you can imagine exciting lawyers at Neverland Ranch, is no doubt meant to be The Weeknd’s next big hit. But Tesfaye sounds more whiny than passionate on the song’s chorus, and it’s hard to love lyrics that tie a stripper’s appeal to her childhood abuse (really: “dollar bills and tears keep falling down her face”). Another somber earworm, “Prisoner,” features Lana Del Rey, who mostly serves to remind that fastidiously constructed sad/glamorous pop stars benefit from laughing with the audience sometimes. (Tesfaye could also learn this lesson from his buddy Drake.)

Without fail, the best Beauty Behind the Madness moments come when his producers try to break through the gloom. “Losers” is literally about being too cool for school, but what’s actually transgressive is how it periodically erupts with bright piano and horns (Martin isn’t credited on the track, but I hear an echo of “Baby One More Time”). “As You Are” is a smooth synthetic jam that recalls Phil Collins, with gentle, comforting melodies that could fit in with the recent wave of female-fronted pop albums mining ‘80s cheese. And “Shameless” is a sturdy work of campfire strumming, on which Tesfaye kindly obliges a booty caller’s desperation. “I’ll always be there for you, girl, I have no shame,” he sings, offering the only promise of devotion anyone’s ever likely to get from him.