Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd
The Weeknd just released his latest album on Friday, and boy does it live up to the hype. The Weeknd’s song, Can’t Feel My Face, is, of course, all over radio and the internet. It’s classic pop by way of R&B. And the song’s popularity is completely justified. It’s an addictive song. And its sophisticated metaphor comparing cocaine addiction to a toxic relationship that you can’t shake foreshadows the accomplishment of the album, as a whole.
The Weeknd is an exquisite vocalist, his range echoing that of Michael Jackson to whom he is often compared (Is it a coincidence his album was dropped a day before Jackson’s birthday?). But his range is much broader as he dips into alternative R&B, straight up pop, and hip hop. In fact, it’s hard to box him into any one or two genres. He’s far too experimental and agile to stick to any one thing.
Some critics have called The Weeknd’s sound PBR&B to evoke a sound that takes R&B as its base but that moves beyond it in more experimental ways. Other artists that might fit into this category are FKA twigs, Silk Rhodes, Frank Ocean, Miguel, Ego Ella May, and The Internet. But many fans and artists resent this term and find it derisive in how it ties this music to hipsters and their nostalgia-driven culture.
On the other hand, there is a clear reaching back in a lot of music by some of the most popular artists today. But there’s nothing wrong with that as these artists have taken the music of yesteryear and refined it and made it their own. In fact, there’s been a Tumblr post going around that makes a case that the pace of technological change experienced by kids who grew up in the 90’s – going from big-assed corded phones to computers in your pockets in short order – explains the nostalgia for simpler times. And The Weeknd dips back not just to earlier R&B but to 90’s pop and 90’s rap and hip hop, as well.
You can hear how The Weeknd evokes weed-infused 90’s hip hop in several of his songs. Take The Hills in which he references beats like you hear in Nuthin’ But A G Thang by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he was called then). Listening to the song you hear the low rumbling tick tick that evokes the image of a low rider slowly driving through a neighborhood as The Weeknd sings: “I can’t find find your house, send me the info/Driving through the gated residential.” In this song, he’s reminding the woman he’s involved with that she’s a cheater, too. And there’s the swagger that’s found in those 90’s classics. But there’s also something more – he’s not blaming her but asking her to accept equal responsibility.
In fact, when The Weeknd sounds the hardest, there’s always something else. He makes the motions, but he’s not the gangsta that he’s frontin’. It’s just a persona. The Weeknd, just like his name, is a character he’s put on. The tropes he brings in of hard core rap and hip hop are just a bit of trolling, in my opinion. He’s all of these things and none of these things. He sings about drug addiction, but I don’t get the feeling he’s struggled with being an addict. Likewise, he talks a big sexual game. But then he sings about how great he is measured by how well he satisfies a woman – the trope gets flipped because ultimately it’s not about him but the women. The Weeknd, himself, winks and nods at this persona in the video above for Tell Your Friends as he buries himself – the persona, the character he’s created, has taken over and is the only truth.
Yes, he’s confessional, even going so far as to open the album by including advice he ostensibly got from his mother to stop being so self-destructive and not push women away. But the fact that The Weeknd is an act, a character, is something that sets him apart from another confessional neo R&B artist, Amy Winehouse. Winehouse presented her most true self in her music. So when she sang about not wanting to go to rehab, it was true. And we, the public, ate it up. But when The Weeknd sings about addiction, we can understand it’s his persona and not him. And in that regard he’s keeping a distance between true self – buried out in some deserted area – and performing self. And maybe he won’t get eaten alive like Winehouse was. At least I hope not, because I want to see how this artist continues to evolve.