Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, is another example of internet triumph – the idea that you can post a song on the internet somewhere, someone high up will find it, promote it, and make you famous. Posting three songs to YouTube in 2010 with nothing but album artwork and a name, “The Weeknd,” these tracks were then featured on a blog run by the OVO Camp, Drake’s people, and then subsequently received coverage from Pitchfork, because of their One Direction-like Drake fan-girl obsession. It was a weird beginning of the “appease Drake” or “appease Taylor Swift” to get famous mentality that still exists today.
While the OVO blog might have launched The Weeknd to the spotlight however, he wasn’t ready for it. No one had a face to the name, or knew who was really behind the three following mixtapes in 2011, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Growing the fanbase, The Weeknd’s first huge appearance was at Coachella in April 2012, where his performance was described as “uneasy,” like he wasn’t ready for the spotlight just yet. When a fourth album, Kiss Land, appeared and he opened up a show with Justin Timberlake on the 20/20 Experience Tour, The Weeknd was a full-fledged, out in the open, had to be in the know to know, but well known artist.
Landing a spot on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack with “Earned It,” track 5 here on Beauty Behind the Madness, was a huge step up for Abel. To not only have two songs on the soundtrack, but to essentially match the popularity of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” Fifty Shades Remix with “Earned It,” is not only huge in listen numbers, but because people would start, subconsciously at least, comparing and associating The Weeknd with people like Beyonce, and other huge pop artists on the record. But it wasn’t a cemented thought until the release of the single, “Can’t Feel My Face,” rivaling the spot for number one summer jam for probably as long as Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” topped the charts, where The Weeknd found himself a widely talked about and discussed artist. The XO camp knows where to go to gain new audiences too, hitting all the hotspots: Drake’s Take Care, Fifty Shades of Grey, “Love Me Harder” with Ariana Grande, and Sia’s “Elastic Heart.” It’s been a whirlwind for The Weeknd ever since it started back in 2010.
From Scarborough, Ontario, Abel Tesfaye lived in an apartment with a bunch of his friends, having dropped out of high school at the age of 17. With starting the project of “The Weeknd,” he wrote simply describing everything that was going on around him. House of Balloons, his first record, assumes the most omniscient view-point from The Weeknd releases: parties like you couldn’t believe, drugs like you couldn’t believe, women like you couldn’t believe, and in the middle of it all is Abel, and his people, and they would party all night, wake up, and do it all again the next day. And this was his life for about 4-5 years, though probably also still might be.
The thing with The Weeknd is that it’s so unabashedly unapologetic. He knows exactly what he’s doing, never ashamed, never thinking it was wrong – it’s just his life. “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me,” he says on “The Hills.” With the Weeknd, since the opener to House of Balloons back in early 2011, his lifestyle has always been an open celebration, never “I succumbed to the drugs” or “I gave in to the drugs,” but instead he uses the drugs, not the other way around, it’s a power thing for him, not an escape. He begs us not to judge, but it’s so out of what’s considered normal behavior or thoughts about drugs and their effects, so openly celebratory, for these thoughts to exist in him, for him to be completely aware of the this lifestyle, it’s a lot to digest.
While I don’t agree with everything that happens on Beauty Behind the Madness, there’s still a fairly decent amount to appreciate and chew on. Things I could live without: I can only hear the lines from “Acquainted,” “I got you touchin’ on your body,” so many times before it’s annoying, the tracks with Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey, and honestly speaking, the two tracks surrounding it as well. I liked the whole 10 tracks to a Weeknd album thing, but like most artists who turn pop when they can, 14-18 is usually the track list route they take. It’s nothing personal against Ed Sheeran or Lana Del Rey, it’s just that for a Weeknd album, there’s just this thing in me that says that he should have the full spotlight, that no one else belongs here, or should be showcased. It’s Abel’s world, not theirs.
Those first ten tracks though, the real heart and subject matter of Beauty Behind the Madness, does something I never expected from The Weeknd – the idea of self-reflection. Album opener, “Real Life,” is an interesting look at how Abel’s reality, or at least the one he has had up until now, begins to meld with our reality, and how he’s handling it. He starts off with, “Tell ’em this boy wasn’t mean’t for lovin’ / Tell ’em this heart doesn’t stay to one / I’ll be the same, never changed for nothin’ / It’s all I know, never learned much more,” to which he then responds recounting a conversation with his mother saying, “Mama called me destructive / Said it’d ruin me one day / ‘Cause every woman that loved me / I seemed to push them away / that’s real life.”
While Abel is essentially saying that this is the only way he’s known, and then his heart and mind aren’t ready to accept love, his mom tries to warn him that it’s destructive, and that he should come back to real life, our reality, a lifestyle that’s healthy and makes sense. And this kind of self-reflection, where he’s aware of what he’s doing and not celebrating it fully but also contemplating his future and his actions, is really a massive breakthrough for Abel.
Furthermore, he struggles through the whole record with another mind-altering feeling for him. He tackles love, whether he wants to truly admit it or not. It’s always been fast drugs and fast women for him, and while he’s contemplating it all, he’s also questioning love and if it’s even possible for him. He says, over and over again in different ways and multiple tracks, he’s a hit-it-and-quit-it kind of guy. Love isn’t his thing, it’s stupid, it’s worthless to him, but then after every denial, there’s a hint of “but wait.” It’s ever so subtle, but it’s there. Songs like “Losers,” “Often,” “The Hills,” “Acquainted,” “As You Are,” they all have that self-doubt, like he’s battling it out in his head, but his old ways are still winning. “Every day, I’m tired of going alone,” translates the sample from “Often.”
In a New York Times article, when asked about his possible relationship with model Bella Hadid and if so, if he was in love, he responded, “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t think so. Maybe. It’s no, it’s yes, it’s maybe,” and this conflict in The Weeknd is so clearly present on Beauty Behind the Madness, and an awesome look into his psyche. And that’s what is so great about Beauty Behind the Madness. Not that “Can’t Feel My Face” is a great song, that’s he’s trying out a more pop sound, that The Weeknd is becoming huge, that he’s got some Fifty Shades of Grey song, but that it’s the first time we really see him try to evolve emotionally.