“Beauty Behind the Madness,” the Weeknd's second album, aims to fulfill the broken promises of his debut, “Kiss Land” by innovating the psychedelic R&B sound he pioneered on his breakthrough mix tape series four years ago.
The new album manages to capture the broad sound of that trilogy in one streamlined hour of new material. Abel Tesfaye, the creative power behind the Weeknd, is on his best behavior, treating his indulgent lifestyle with a lyrical ambiguity that propels bouncy ’80s style single, “Can’t Feel My Face” and string orchestrated movie single “Earned It,” into prominent radio play.
The Weeknd has lightened up somewhat contrary to the mood of the cover. Tesfaye sounds satisfied, albeit self-absorbed on vintage Kanye production, “Tell Your Friends” and raps a chorus on “Often” that will sneak into DJ’s sets at festivals for years to come.
Hit single, “The Hills” is the high-water mark though, pitting focused songwriting against nebulous song structure in an impressive four-minute tour de force. There’s plenty of material here for traditionalist fans too. “Acquainted” and “Shameless” could be outtakes from an early mix tape if it weren’t for their bass-ridden dance codas and electric guitar solos.
“As You Are” best mirrors the larger project’s sound. This album fits perfectly in the Weeknd’s canon, but it sounds like nothing he has ever done before. Abel has honed his songwriting too, showcasing clear-eyed reflection on opener, “Real Life” and dramatic storytelling on the Jackson influenced, “In the Night.” Guest rappers are absent this time, replaced by pop superstars Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey who offer highly anticipated collaborations that inexplicably sit back to back in the album’s final quarter, but deliver some of the album’s most memorable moments all the same.
“Prisoner” has a beast of a hook, but Lana doesn’t share the natural chemistry that Abel shows with Ed Sheeran on the previous track, “Dark Times.” All things considered, “Beauty Behind the Madness” is a very progressive release that makes Tesfaye’s music more accessible to a commercial audience without compromising what made it stand out in the first place by playing to the artist’s strengths. He shows his focused artistic direction on final track, “Angel” when he sings “I know what I am and the life I live.” Thankfully Abel, knowing that helps us to know what a great Weeknd album sounds like.