Final Rating: 6.5/10
“Only losers go to school”. This is the lead line in one of the better songs on The Weeknd’s second full length album Beauty Behind The Madness. This is the kind of ego trip that Abel Tesfaye has had since he first came out. He released his three terrific mixtapes, and his first full length Kissland just didn’t quite match up to this highly set bar. Beauty Behind the Madness doesn’t quite do this, either, yet it has no problems leaving Kissland in the dust. This second release is more consistent, easier to complete and much more memorable. However, it is the mentality that only losers go to school that will keep Tesfaye in this windowed section on a numerical scale. Is he a 6 or a 7? At times, he gets darn near a 10, but as a whole, he is trapped in the greyest of areas any critic can suffer. How do we scold the bad parts without punishing the good parts too severely? To Tesfaye, losers go to school. For him to really knock his next album out of the park, he has to be like his contemporaries and take people to school, instead.
You can only get so far without being willing to learn. Frank Ocean released his own mixtape and followed it up with the highly complicated Channel Orange. You can put that on and hear something new each and every time. What the world expects is what plagued Beyoncé for years until her self titled release burst the doors of radio R&B right open. The Weeknd, too, has been a radio darling for a while, but he feels comfortable staying there. His lyrics are still as juvenile as ever, as he talks about spending money “on them bitches”, asks “who’s going to touch you like me”, and more winning moments. Sure, Ocean and Beyoncé and many other artists within the RnB, Neo Soul movements talk about sex and promiscuity freely, but there’s a reason why it may work a bit better there. It also has to do with why a release like The Weeknd’s House of Balloons is still his crowning achievement. When the lyrics truly melt into the textures of the music behind them, then they work. When The Weeknd talked about waking up the morning after and the music drastically changed and felt melancholy, it was a great amalgamation. On here, the cursing and immaturity is jarring, not raunchy.
It’s a shame because so much work was put into the music. Not all of these efforts work like home runs, but there is actually something worth justifying when it comes to the music here and not the lyricism. This album is The Weeknd trying to channel the superstars he loves the most. He has anthemic stadium killers like the final track Angel and throwbacks like Tell Your Friends. He has some noteworthy collaborations with artists like Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey who fit just nicely within the context of the album. There is a mixture of the out of body soaring his mixtapes delivered and the digital roaring Kissland started introducing on this release, and it sometimes works quite nicely. The Hills is a nice example of The Weeknd’s love of trip hop (aside from those less than pleasant wordplays though). Some other songs fall through the cracks, and this is something that is more to do with the standard R&B album being a tough formula to pull off more than it is to do with The Weeknd. Many R&B albums are long and it takes a lot of talent to gracefully pull off having over an hours worth of mood music not feel boring.
Maybe this is due to The Weeknd’s written limitations. If anything, he’s a better singer than Frank Ocean, but Ocean comes out as the better artist through his ambitions. The Weeknd, too, is ambitious, but only to a comfortable extent. What The Weeknd needs to do is to create worlds again. He fared better with his free releases than he has his studio albums, and while Beauty Behind the Madness is a leap towards the right direction, Tesfaye absolutely must push himself further.
When Live in Limbo interviewed pop rockers Walk the Moon, the band was asked about pop formulas. We were given examples ranging from Michael Jackson to Get Lucky. We got our most recent answer: I Can’t Feel My Face. Damn right. That’s one hell of a song. It will most likely end up in my list of the best songs of 2015, and it was quite a sign of promise for this most recent album. All Beauty Behind the Madness can serve for now is a great promise of things to come. We have a few winners, but these winners mostly had to put up with a player that almost threw the game for them: The lyrics. Perhaps Tesfaye needs to go through the rest of the work week and not just the weekend to progress himself even further. He’s shown signs of his efforts, but he’s also visibly shackled. The more daring The Weeknd is, the greatness he can achieve will slowly trickle out along with his sweat. Mark my words. For now, we have a decent album from what can be a great artist.