Abel Tesfaye — the mysterious pop innovator who records as the Weeknd — set a weird new standard for gloomy self-indulgence in R&B when he came out of Canada a few years back. He was like Drake with the soul of an art-school goth, singing vaguely creepy things like “It’s gonna end how you expected/Girl, you’re such a masochist” in a satin-smooth voice over weeded-out, black-light-ready tracks built from stretched-out Siouxsie and the Banshees and Beach House samples. The three mixtapes he self-released in 2011 (collected one year later as his full-length Trilogy) and his proper major-label debut, 2013’s Kiss Land, all seemed suspended in a predawn haze, where partying gets dark and drugs feel more like quicksand than rocket fuel. It’s no surprise that this year, when he finally scored a chart-topping summer jam, it was a thinly veiled sex-as-cocaine metaphor called “Can’t Feel My Face.” The dude specializes in sensual numbness.
The Weeknd built a huge cult audience by sucking listeners into his lavishly appointed Batcave. Recently, though, in an unlikely twist, he’s become a genuine mainstream pop player — duetting playfully with Ariana Grande on her 2014 hit “Love Me Harder,” arriving on a stadium stage as Taylor Swift’s latest celebrity bestie. The Weeknd’s second proper album seals the deal by reaching for full-blown Top 40 grandeur. Occasionally he nails it, especially on the tracks that are already radio smashes — “Can’t Feel My Face,” co-produced to perfection by Swedish teen-pop Svengali Max Martin, and the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack’s “Earned It,” an extravagant orchestral ballad with a richly layered vocal performance that’s this guy’s version of an earnest valentine.
Tesfaye’s vocal model here is clearly the Michael Jackson of Thriller and Bad. Often his Michael moves feel less like influence than impersonation — but there’s plenty of Eighties love to go around, from the Tracy Chapman-like coffee-shop croon on “Shameless” to the Phil Collins-esque power-ballad tsunami “Angel.” The throwback feel works best when it’s used to give this shadowy artist some emotional or biographical color. “Tell Your Friends,” a lush Seventies-soul-steeped tune co-produced by Kanye West, follows the Weeknd from homeless kid on the mean streets of Toronto to money-chasing superstar: “My cousin said I made it big, and it’s unusual/She tried to take a selfie at my grandma’s funeral.”
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But if the sound has widened and even brightened in spots, the Weeknd still rocks a serious Eeyore vibe for much of Beauty Behind the Madness. “I’m better off when I’m alone,” he insists on “Real Life,” channeling Nineties-MJ levels of defiant isolation as drums and strings slam like doors to a crypt. Red-eyed creepers like “Often” and “The Hills” make his playboy arrogance feel a little mean-spirited. When he sings, “Only my mother could love me for me,” on “Dark Times” — a bluesy duet with Ed Sheeran — his self-pity feels like a warning.
Sometimes, the album stirs up real drama. “In the Night” could be just one more “Dirty Diana”-style ode to a predatory babe — until we learn the woman in the song is the victim of abuse, “dancing to relieve the pain.” And even when Tesfaye is merely being a drama queen, it’s hard to look away. On “Prisoner,” he hooks up with Lana Del Rey for a summit of luxuriant sadness. It’s quite the slow-burning pity party — “I’m addicted to a life that’s empty and cold,” they sing. Ironically, this album is where the Weeknd starts warming us up like we never thought he could.