If you turned on a radio to listen to Top 40 songs this year, The Weeknd was inescapable. Last summer’s “Often” was a slow burn that got some gas after his guest spot on Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” introduced him to a whole new audience. Then “Earned It,” off the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, clawed to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. “The Hills” only crept to No. 5. Then the song of the summer, “Can’t Feel My Face,” arrived and dominated the charts and the airwaves.
But these pop songs weren’t always The Weeknd’s, whose given name is Abel Tesfaye, specialty. The mysterious singer who is notoriously media-averse once dealt in a darker headspace musically. He created dozens of tracks and mixes that earned him a cult following, but no time in the mainstream spotlight. With his new album, Beauty Behind the Madness, arriving Friday, EW looks back at nine of his best deep cuts.
The synth and guitars in “The Morning” are euphonic, but the life The Weeknd lives isn’t admirable. He describes a miserable and a lonely existence, and “Drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast” quickly becomes trite.
“The Party & The After Party”
Tesfaye’s two favorite musical subjects seem to be sex and drugs, and the first half of this track is about a fun hookup in which both the singer and his partner are fully invested. The back portion spaces out and follows the comedown.
It’s a club-ready song, and Tesfaye is psyched to bring a woman back to his lush loft, but he and his senses are lost to the haze (and the substances). The allure of going out and getting messed up every night is finite.
The buzz-saw bass drives the courting of his newest amour, the Thursday girl. Here, he mostly stays in the higher end of his vocal range, which is a welcome surprise.
“Life of the Party”
The oft discordant five minutes is an audible interpretation of a strained and intoxicated rendezvous. Everything is heightened, and it’s neither soothing nor comforting. Instead, this track is terrifying, unsettling, and oddly alluring.
“The Birds, Pt. 2”
“Pt. 1” is an impassioned warning to a potential lover, but “Pt. 2” is a dreamy, strung-out sequel that begins with crying and a muffled gunshot.
“Gone” is probably the longest zoned-out sex song in Tesfaye’s catalog. He’s “gone from the codeine, ‘methazine, lean,” succumbing to laziness and numbness.
“XO” is about a normal enough party, and “The Host” is, like most of the songs here, a description of surveying the damage done when you’re all out of whack.
“Wanderlust” is the first evidence that of The Weeknd’s pop turn. Its opening guitar lick sounds like an outtake off the Heat soundtrack, but then it veers into full-blown dance party.
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