The Weeknd performing at Lollapalooza / Photo by Daniel Patlán for Noisey
At some point this summer, we quietly found ourselves in the middle of an arena-style brawl for pop supremacy. Taylor Swift, true to her surname, swept around the world in a maelstrom of conquest, protected by a phalanx of supermodels. Drake, too, ran through whatever area codes he could stomping out his claim to dominance and pausing, briefly, for a one-on-one battle with Meek Mill, from which he emerged with barely a scratch. Charlie Puth, whoever the fuck he is, sat on the sidelines racking up cheap points via radio features, while Macklemore dove into the scrum late in the season to remind us he still has some cornball clout and deceptively powerful finishing moves. The Biebs crept, one keening synth tone at a time, back into the conversation, while Miley found a way to get the collective strength of the rest of pop music focused on instantaneously crushing her thanks to her walking into Nicki Minaj’s line of fire. Kanye floated up above the fray and declared himself both master of ceremonies and president. And The Weeknd, rather boldly, walked into the middle of everything, consolidated his alliances, and decided he was the new Michael Jackson, an R&B artist who could also be the world’s biggest pop star.
As everything written about The Weeknd and his occasionally great new album Beauty Behind the Madness has noted, this arrival has proceeded as follows: The Weeknd established himself and built his fan base by offering bleary, dark, almost nihilistic odes to a druggy, lust-filled, occasionally creepy nighttime lifestyle on his trilogy of mixtapes; the formula began to flag on his initial attempt at pop crossover, Kiss Land; he enlisted the best songwriters in the game—Max Martin’s crack team—to help him sculpt more considered pop songs for the follow-up. This pivot has enabled him to position his latest album as his bid to be both the Michael Jackson and the Prince of our era. His intentions have not been subtle (nor particularly new, as those who remember his cover of “Dirty Diana” on Echoes of Silence might be quick to point out). He's made the comparison himself, and Beauty Behind the Madness's world-conquering single “I Can't Feel My Face” has the unmistakeable disco bounce of a certain king of pop. And in at least a commercial sense, it worked: Beauty Behind the Madness is a smash success, the number one album in the country, with the second-biggest first week sales of the year. Eleven of its 14 songs are on this week’s Hot 100 singles chart. That The Weeknd is a pop star is a foregone conclusion. Yet the actual appeal of The Weeknd as a pop star is more elusive. How did he go from being the guy who just channels our druggy fantasias to being an artist with broad commercial potential? Or are our druggy fantasias really that broadly appealing?
When House of Balloons came out in 2011, it was a revelation and a novelty. The tape was sonically sophisticated, with production that pulled directly from Drake and 40's swirling, melodic realm of Toronto hip-hop as well as the atmospheric, dreamy side of indie rock (going so far as to sample Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees). It looked cool, with a minimalist black and white cover art and equally shadowy artist pictures: Fans were so inspired that they began making high-quality music videos of their own, stripped of color and full of the same naked models, substance abuse, and high-rise condos that the project called to mind. Abel Tesfaye himself was anonymous and silent to the press, even once he began performing and showing his face (early coverage played up the mystery, fumbled as to whether The Weeknd was a guy or a group, and argued over the pronunciation of the name). All of this felt new. Other artists had used the internet in similar ways, but none had done so quite as deftly or had quite as catchy of music to offer, and the presentation was enough to draw fans in on its own. Even when the music became limper and more formless, and the fantasies in it correspondingly less sexy as a result, The Weeknd continued to grow in popularity because this aesthetic was so defined. His music conjures a very clear mood of numbed detachment and self-loathing hedonism.
It’s also a mood that’s distinctly at odds with the emotional earnestness that has traditionally been one of the hallmarks of R&B as a genre. R&B has a reputation for corniness that comes from this type of open emoting, but that’s also part of its appeal to its fans. By suggesting an aesthetic overhaul, The Weeknd and several of his contemporaries made R&B newly cool. But the artists often cited as The Weeknd’s peers—Frank Ocean, Miguel, and and even the more raunchy, mischievous Ty Dolla $ign and the more pop-oriented Jeremih—were and are still in their own ways traditional, capturing the candid, humanist spirit that has always existed in great R&B (and great music period) from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé. In contrast, The Weeknd has always seemed more concerned with presentation. The characters in his songs feel too fucked up to be earnest. His music stands in relation to those peers as design stands to art: One is meant to move you, while the other is meant to pander to the idea of what moves you. In that sense, The Weeknd's closest analogues are artists like Travis Scott or A$AP Rocky, who are more interested creating a mood than understanding it. And the influence of that approach has been immense: The Weeknd almost singlehandedly gave birth to the thriving genre of artists with slick grayscale Tumblrs who sigh a lot and invoke the idea of R&B as they cruise for TV show placements.
The Weeknd's mysterious press photo from 2011
To be fair to the music itself, there's something very romantic about the idea of ourselves (particularly when we're in the throes of late adolescence and experimenting with substances) as broken and flawed, as too swept up in the system to react in any way other than by blocking it out, as too numb or immature or selfish to carry out normal, traditional relationships. There’s a reassurance to be found in lyrics like “I know your motives and you know mine” because they massage our egos by reminding us that it’s normal to feel like we’re shallow and fucked up. And while he’s often derided as creepy about gender, The Weeknd tends to write female characters whose nihilism is just as humanized and absolute as that of their male counterparts. It’s also romantic to listen to music that sounds so grandiose and cinematic: I was 22 when The Weeknd started releasing music, and his songs were, as a music blog might claim, the perfect soundtrack to the late nights when I'd come home just a little too drunk and a little too stoned, standing on the train platform and staring up at the skyline and thinking about how great it would be to be one of the people in those high rises instead of gazing at them. But that's a specific fantasy and a specific feeling and one that begins to evaporate as you get older. The idea of being a debauched fuck-up with tons of money begins to sound less appealing than the idea of being an emotionally balanced person with a firm grasp on life. Responsibilities begin to outweigh fantasies. And the thing is, to be Michael Jackson, you have to be someone who appeals to more than the 18-to-24-year-old partiers of the world. You can’t be the biggest pop star in the world when what you’re offering is just an aesthetic.
It’s been easy to accept Beauty Behind the Madness as a successful pop crossover because the data and the narrative and the single that sounds like Michael Jackson point to it, but the arguments have been vaguer about what it is in the music that is actually crossing over. The answer is in the way the album makes an attempt to escape this aesthetic trap, to add more value beyond the texture of The Weeknd’s songs. It’s a pivot toward some conception of The Weeknd as debauched lothario with a human heart (his girlfriend may be the kind of 18-year-old model that floats through his songs, but at least they seem to have concrete feelings for each other). Suddenly there is some empathy in the music. There's the almost-admission of caring about someone on “Acquainted,” by far the album's best song. There’s the compassion of the line in “Shameless” that suggests “it's why you always call me cause you're scared to be loved.” And there’s what could be kind of seen as a mission statement for The Weeknd growing up and taking a broader look at his grim world on “Angel”: “Even though we live inside / a dangerously empty life / you always seem to bring me light.”
There might be, as it were, some beauty behind the madness, some sort of person behind the debauchery. Which is why the album works as a way of catering to The Weeknd's base, too. After all, we would all prefer to think that while we might be fucked up and irresponsible and maybe doing things that our mothers don't approve of (and The Weeknd's mom's disapproval crops up repeatedly here), that ultimately it is because we are beautiful people who are caught up in the madness of the world, that we are fundamentally good people making self-destructive decisions. This is the idea that The Weeknd has always played to, but here it is finally presented as something from which the listener can be redeemed. The Weeknd may not be ready to take the same kind of profound stabs at contemplating human nature as Frank Ocean, but at least he’s not writing it off altogether.
Is that enough to redeem The Weeknd himself, to set him on the path to be the next Michael? Probably not by itself: It takes a more expansive view of compassion than one that simply pauses in the middle of chaos to take note of humanity. I still have a sense that The Weeknd is above all good at pulling the right emotional levers, and the album’s arena-ready guitars suggest that his path could just as easily be that of the next Bon Jovi—a rock star for the Tumblr era, with a massive audience but a catalog that mostly caters to the diehard fans. I'm not sure The Weeknd has the force of personality to ever pull off that complete pop star pivot (consider how much notice was paid to his tepid VMA performance of “I Can't Feel My Face” as compared to literally anything else that happened that night: He was, in what is perhaps foreshadowing for his career, competent but not conversation-worthy). But Beauty Behind the Madness at least suggests that there is a person there, behind all the production filters and drugs and carefully curated public image. And that’s what makes it the success it promised to be.
Kyle Kramer can't feel his face when he types for you. Follow him on Twitter.