Is there a more unlikely pop ascent than that of the Weeknd? The Canadian R&B sensation (born Abel Tesfaye) began as a mixtape phenomenon, grew into an indie favorite, and is now dominating the Hot 100 this summer with the unstoppable “Can’t Feel My Face.” Not bad for a dude who began uploading spacey sex jams anonymously to the Internet.
Tesfaye has gone from hermetic genius to genuine pop star, and judging by Beauty Behind the Madness, his third proper album, he’s still adjusting to the arc of his own career. The 25-year-old has clearly retained many of the left-field instincts that made him a favorite of heady R&B fans (and Drake) in 2011, but he’s also making a concerted effort to bend his sound in a more mainstream direction. Tesfaye resolves that schism best on “Can’t Feel My Face,” an ebullient disco kick that swells with surgical precision. He finds a similar high on “In the Night,” a confident strut that sounds like a lost jam from Thriller.
But anyone looking for a collection of homages to the King of Pop will be disappointed. Those masterpieces are outliers, and they end up making Madness’ missteps all the more jarring. The Kanye West co-production “Tell Your Friends” is dull, borrowing limp atmospheric tricks that West abandoned years ago. The album-closing “Angel” begins with Meat Loaf-level bombast and only gets goofier. And when Tesfaye teams with Ed Sheeran on “Dark Times,” the result is a confounding imitation of Imagine Dragons’ arena-rock schlock.
In the middle of those two poles lies a series of bass-heavy throb-and-moan blasts with the signature oddness (shape-shifting melodies, twitchy percussion) that makes the Weeknd a compelling artist. While his talent is undeniable, once he fully harnesses it, he’ll really be dangerous. B