There was a moment in the late ’80s when Michael Jackson was both the biggest pop star in the world and, arguably at least, the weirdest. Jackson was always weird; the circumstances of his upbringing made it impossible for him to be anything but. But all the way up through Thriller, the primary emotion that shot through his weightless, impossible, childlike voice was joy. Around the time he made Bad, that joy curdled and became something else. It gave way to a dark, anxious sexuality, a wriggling discomfort that was almost never obvious in the lyrics but always right there in the delivery. In his later years, Jackson turned his voice into a strange percussive effect, grunting and grinding and pushing against the beat. He was deep inside his own head, since the outside world was no place for him, and he was trying and failing to make some sense out of his life. You could hear it all in the music. Abel Tesfaye knows all about that. On the Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape, Echoes Of Silence, Tesfaye covered Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” probably the most freaked-out-about-sex song that Jackson ever sang. And on stretches of the Weeknd’s astonishing new album, Beauty Behind The Madness, Tesfaye has gone a long way toward becoming Michael Jackson — or, at least, toward imagining how Michael Jackson might sound if his life circumstances had been vastly different.
Tesfaye’s Jackson isn’t the Jackson we got — the sweet kid who was drilled to performative perfection by an abusive father, who built himself an amusement park at his house because he’d never had the chance to experience childlike fun as an actual child. Instead, Tesfaye imagines Jackson as a nightclub prowler. It’s Jackson with maybe no father at all, Jackson with an active Tinder account and a sharpened pinky nail and a part-time job at American Apparel. Since we met him back at the dawn of this decade, Tesfaye has been working some variation of that persona — the wide-eyed kid with the honeyed voice who was also an out-of-control sex-and-drugs fiend. He’s the guy who knows what he’s doing is wrong, who knows that he’s destroying women’s lives and wrecking his own nasal cavity, who knows he should stop but who feels powerless to stop himself. There’s a slick predator quality to his character, but there’s also a stark vulnerability. In that way, Tesfaye is closer to Mick Jagger or Axl Rose than to Jackson.
But the wonder in Tesfaye’s voice, the flat and wounded honesty, is pure Jackson. So while he draws on the darkness of Bad-era Jackson, the things that turned him dark aren’t a fucked-up childhood and the relentless scrutiny of the tabloid press. They’re the same things that make the party-kid life dark for plenty of people in their 20s at this strange moment in history. When the Weeknd closed out the second night of Coachella this year, bumped above the top-billed Jack White, it made perfect sense. White is great at what he does, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the way we’re living in 2015 — beyond, perhaps, the way our accelerated pace of life has convinced many to long for a simpler age. The Weeknd, though? Probably half the people watching his set were living out some version of one of his song’s narratives that very night. His entire thing is about what it’s like to be young and horny and fucked-up and lost in 2015. In a lot of ways, he’s our greatest real rock star right now.
Beauty Behind The Madness is the moment Tesfaye takes all the free-floating anxiety and fear and cold, clammy darkness that’s been in his music since day one and turns it into pure big-tent pop gold. I never would’ve imagined that the guy singing vaporous sex jams over Beach House samples a few years ago would become one of the world’s biggest and greatest pop stars in a very short time, but here we are. BBTM is a total and unabashed sellout move, and that’s one of the best things about it. It shows what happens when an artist gives in to his commercial instincts and, in the process, finds his voice. Tesfaye’s last album, 2013’s Kiss Land, was really just a sharper, bigger-budget take on the nebulous drug-soul that Tesfaye had been making (to diminishing returns) on his first three albums. It’s an album of warped, rumbling soundscapes, and listening to it today for the first time in a while, it’s more of a complete vision than I remembered it being. In 2013, I was hung up on the repellant nature of Tesfaye’s persona, and I didn’t really stop to think about what that persona might mean, the of-the-moment struggles that it might represent. And it sounded incredible, its bass tones reverberating on an almost-physical level. But for all its virtues, Kiss Land didn’t work as a pop album. It didn’t meet its audience halfway. BBTM, by contrast, is not shy about driving right up to your front door and camping out there.
In its brightest moments — and this is the first time a Weeknd full-length has even had brightest moments — BBTM draws heavily and obviously on Jackson. “Can’t Feel My Face,” one of the biggest and best songs of this summer, is the most obvious disciple move, and you can see Jackson’s shadow in its high-stepping bassline, its high-drama desperation, its video scene of Tesfaye immolating onstage. The whoop that Tesfaye lets out before the chorus is pure MJ homage. That’s one of two songs that Tesfaye made with Swedish pop-polish king Max Martin, probably the closest thing we have to a Quincy Jones in this corroded age. The other Martin collab is the searching, need-driven paranoiac-disco gem “In The Night.” In Jon Caramanica’s great New York Times profile of the Weeknd, there’s a moment when Tesfaye’s publisher hears “In The Night” and immediately gets very excited: “It’s ‘Billie Jean’! It’s ‘Billie fucking Jean’!” I wouldn’t go that far, but the inspiration is clearly there. But BBTM’s pop moves go beyond its Jackson echoes. They’re there in the 50 Shades Of Grey soundtrack ballad “Earned It,” an unapologetically cheesed-out orchestral ballad that smolders in ways familiar to anyone who ever heard adult-contemporary radio in the 1980s. They’re there in the chunky EDM throb and out-of-nowhere horn-bursts of “Losers.” They’re there in the inclusion of an out-of-his-depth Ed Sheeran, crooning about getting into drunk brawls and sounding like a total herb, on “Dark Times.” Tesfaye is reaching for a real audience on this one, and he’ll find it. The concessions don’t play like concessions. They play like the work of someone who’s found the confidence to stop hiding behind reverb and sonic texture. They play like the work of a great pop auteur.
And while it’s certainly possible to hear BBTM as a collection of singles and potential singles, there’s a lot more than that going on. BBTM is a concept album with a narrative arc, and it’s a dark one. The album opens with a few songs featuring the Tesfaye we remember from the mixtapes, the one who spends every night in a coked-out sex-haze. On opening track, “Real Life,” Tesfaye flattens out his voice when he’s singing the word “life” so it almost sounds like he’s saying “love.” He is not saying “love.” If anything, it’s a cruel trick; he’s laughing at the existence of such a thing: “Mama called me destructive / Said it’d ruin me one day / Cuz every woman that ever loved me / I seemed to push them away.” He spends the next few songs showing just how destructive he can be. On “Tell Your Friends”: “I don’t drink my liquor with a chaser / And money’s the only thing that I’m chasing / End some dope nights on some coke lines / Give me head all night, cum four times.” On “Often“: “I come around, she leave that nigga like he ain’t matter / That girl been drinking all day, need to change bladder.” “The Hills” has to be the first top-10 hit in recent memory about the feeling that you’re not really you unless you’re completely obliterated. The songs that show up early in the album are about addiction and self-destruction, about losing all sense of yourself and learning to love it.
But if Tesfaye stayed like that for the entire album, there wouldn’t be a story. And on “Acquainted,” he starts to fall in love. “Baby, you’re no good,” he insists, and he resists the attraction as hard as he can. But he can’t fight it. And pretty soon, the woman in his life is his favorite addiction, though she’s one of many. That’s what “Can’t Feel My Face” is about: That initial early-relationship energy-jolt when you can’t even think about anything else, when you feel utterly wired all the time. For the next few songs, Tesfaye is falling in love. We know it’s not an especially healthy relationship, partly because of what we already know about Tesfaye and partly because of things we come to find out about the woman in his life: “I don’t wanna hurt you but you live for the pain / I’m not tryna say it but it’s what you became / You want me to fix you but it’s never enough / That’s why you always call me, cuz you’re scared to be loved / But I’ll always be there for you.” Still, the bond is real, and you want to root for these kids to make it.
But there’s another turn on “In The Night.” In a way, Tesfaye’s publisher is right. The song is a cousin to “Billie Jean” for reasons that go beyond its icy, pulsating glide. Both are, after all, desperate songs about a moment of reckoning. On “Billie Jean,” Jackson was screaming at the sky, trying to shake any responsibility for the pregnancy that’s about to change his life. But on “In The Night,” Tesfaye learns something just as heavy, and he actually tries to be the good guy. He learns about some hinted-at trauma in his significant other’s life, and he struggles with how to deal with it, how he can be there for someone who’s worldview has been shaped by an unspeakable act: “He sang a song when he did it / He was cold and he was so unforgiving … She was young, and she was forced to be a woman.” But as much as Tesfaye wants to be there, he’s too remote and myopic to know what to do. “I don’t mind, I don’t mind,” he sings, as if that’s the right thing to say, as if that’ll make any difference at all. He’s helpless to really do anything, and that helplessness sets him adrift.
And that’s the rest of the album: The slow and inevitable parting. Tesfaye and the unnamed girl are both too wounded and fucked up to find any redemption in each other. They try, but they keep fucking up. Tesfaye wakes up with somebody else’s blood on his shirt. “Only my mother could love me for me in my dark times,” he muses. Lana Del Rey shows up near the end of the album, the sole female voice on the whole thing. And if she’s playing the girl on the album, it’s a perfect casting choice; she’s the only pop star who could credibly sound as numb and narcotized and lost as Tesfaye. “I’m a prisoner to my addiction,” the two of them sing, to themselves and to each other. “I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.” By the time the album ends, Tesfaye has given up, and he’s sending out a fond farewell: “I hope you find somebody to love.”
It’s a tragic ending, really. By the time it wraps up its story, Beauty Behind The Madness resonates as one of the bleakest, coldest, hardest albums in recent memory. (Its only real competition is Future’s DS2, another expert and immersive pop album that’s about addiction as much as anything.) BBTM takes you on a journey, and then it dumps you off, damp and shivering in the dark. It’s an album-length refutation of the idea that even a force as powerful as love is enough to pull us out of our collective chemical haze. And so Beauty Behind The Madness is something special. It’s an album full of considered, expertly delivered, immaculately produced pop songs. But it’s also an album with something to say about the human condition as it exists in 2015. It’s a vital and necessary piece of work. Tesfaye was already a star. And now he’s a star with something to say. We don’t have enough of those, and we’re lucky to have him.
Beauty Behind The Madness is out 8/28 on XO/Republic.