Dark, manic yet honest

The Weeknd is looking to feel in his new album.
The Weeknd is looking to feel in his new album.PHOTO: UNIVERSAL MUSIC

With its addictive hooks and dulcet lines, The Weeknd's Beauty Behind The Madness brings a new edginess to pop

R&B/POP

BEAUTY BEHIND THE MADNESS

The Weeknd

XO/Republic

4/5 STARS

Long championed as one of the leading lights of the alternative R&B movement, The Weeknd has put out a second studio album that could well be the one to finally entrench him in the mainstream.

The Canadian singer-songwriter, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, has certainly been making inroads in the past year - three of the songs included in Beauty Behind The Madness have already hit the top 10 on the Billboard singles charts, with disco ditty Can't Feel My Face peaking at the top as his first No. 1 hit.

The subject matters are risque - Tesfaye is still singing about non-committal flings, narcotics and general debauchery and the lyrics are as explicit as they come.

But the production and arrangements are awash with lush, grandiose jams accentuated by addictive hooks and dulcet lines, while retaining The Weeknd's trademark brooding, downtempo sounds.

Instead of coming across as lecherous and irresponsible, his Michael Jackson-like, yearning falsetto is earnest and, at times, plaintive. The singer with the heavy-lidded eyes is not necessarily looking for love - he just wants to feel.

"Mama called me destructive, oh yeah," he laments on album opener Real Life and later continues: "I heard that love is a risk worth taking/I wouldn't know, never been that boy."

Backed by skittering beats and jazzy pianos on Losers, he and duet partner Labrinth lay out his manifesto: "So what can you show me/ That my heart don't know already/ We make our own sense."

The slow waltz of Earned It, released late last year as part of the 50 Shades Of Grey soundtrack, is surprisingly the most restrained lyrics-wise ("Cause girl, you're perfect, You're always worth it"), given the film's bondage, discipline and sado-masochism themes.

Rapper Kanye West contributes co-production duties on Tell Your Friends, recycling the classic Soul Dog piano intro as a fuzzy solo plays out in the background.

Other producers tap into less well-trodden paths when it comes samples, such as in the Ben Billions-produced Often, which uses vocals from Turkish singer Nukhet Duru. Tesfaye, who is of Ethiopian descent, himself has lines in Amharic in The Hills.

On the moody Prisoner, Lana Del Rey provides the only live female voice on the album, doubling Tesfaye's lament on the soul- sapping nature of their addictions.

Dark Times, featuring another star collaborator and millennial pop troubadour Ed Sheeran, is a self-reflecting track ruminating on false promises.

A brutally honest work and a dark gem, Beauty Behind The Madness is an album that brings a new edginess and depth to mainstream pop.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'Dark, manic yet honest'. Print Edition | Subscribe