The Weeknd Drops Into Mainstream Music’s DMs

In the pantheon of recording artists who make great sex music, only a few have risen to the greatest heights. There was Marvin Gaye and Barry White, and there still is Sade. Ironically, what made these artists great was that they could write about something other than sex with the same vigor: from the socio-political state of America to saccharine romanticism.

Abel Tesfaye—better known by his stage name ‘The Weeknd’—is a contemporary artists who writes music almost obsessively about sex. And what he does, he does very well. On his first studio album, Kiss Land—like fellow Toronto native, Drake—he mixed alternative electronica-infused R&B with hip-hop. The result was smooth and slick sounding record about having sex with girls and doing drugs. While it provided earworms for radio listeners, there was something lacking in it: an emotional honesty, a confession about a lifestyle that has led to the demise of many before him.

On his sophomore studio effort Beauty Behind The Madness, he begins to find that thing that he was lacking and there is a soft shimmer to the music.

This new found shimmer comes from two things. The first is a willingness to open up about his life, how it has changed due to his success and how it hasn’t changed at all. This is best exemplified by the third track on the album, “Tell Your Friends,” where he recounts several painful memories( “Used to roam on Queen, now I sing Queen street anthems / Used to hate attention, now I pull up in that wagon / I was broken, I was broken, I was so broke / I used to roam around the town when I was homeless / Me and Lamar would rob a [guy] for his Jordans”).

The second aspect that makes the album shine is the surprising use of disco. The opening track, “Real Life”—on which he is equally as open about his shortcomings—stands out through its use of sound effects that sound like they could be used in a science fiction movie. This might sound chaotic, but it is all held together with melodic crescendoing piano.

The next track, “Losers,” which features Labrinth, is also held together by piano, but this time it has more interesting percussion. It begins with an army of hand claps that breaks into bass heavy beat, like a fever breaking.

The similarly disco-inspired hit single, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a perfect, “this love is terrible but we’re going to dance” jam and would have been right at home on one of Michael Jackson’s records.

There are many standout tracks on this album. “In The Night” is a another perfectly crafted disco-inspired song about a girl so addicted to the nightlife that it leads to her downfall, and “Earned It” is the certified baby-making jam after being featured on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. With that said, as a whole body of work, it feels disjointed and thematically and musically interrupted. With the right order, it could be a great record.

On his second album, he shows that he can sing about more than sex. He can sing about the pitfalls of fame and his shortcomings as a person. He can stretch beyond the beats of trap and hip hop and onto disco. This record sounds like he is spending the night dancing at Studio 54 with all the girls and drugs in the world around him, but he still wants to cry. If only the record were consistent enough to take us on that journey with him.

Featured Image Courtesy of Republic Records