The Weeknd's sophomore album drops Friday, August 28—here's everything that's hit us during a frenzied week of compulsive, nonstop advance listening.
Whether it's the sludge-slams of "The Hills," the deep-sea soundscape that leads us into "Often," the guitar apocalypse of Beauty Behind the Madness' first song, "Real Life," the instant soul drop on "Tell Your Friends," the crescendoing fuzz on "Can't Feel My Face," the nightmare tune-up on "Shameless," the blues croon on "Dark Times" or the LSD daydream ooohs on "Prisoner," almost every track will amp your pulse up immediately.
A redheaded Irishman and an Ethiopian-Canadian taking turns demonstrating what neo-R&B/soul means in 2015
"Dark Times," track 12, is the nervously/eagerly awaited Ed Sheeran collaboration. The tale of woe features 24-year-old Edward's signature fusion of modern day blues, soul and R&B, followed by 25-year-old Abel's variety, set to nearly identical lyrics and melody lines. It's a great compare/contrast opportunity and a sexy sound-stew.
By the way: Their birthdays are one day apart. That's how this joint came to be. (Nonfactual.) (Well, first sentence checks out.)
If you saw the new, super cinematic "Tell Your Friends" video, you heard half the HQ version of the album's Kanye West-produced track before hearing the beginning of "Real Life" dropped. "Tell Your Friends" is pure soul-sampling Yeezy, a la "White Dress," "Devil in a New Dress," his work on The Blueprint and across discographies by Common and other buddies, probably other songs with "dress" in the title. It's that low-key, roll-a-J-and-sit-back brand of Soul 'Ye.
What you won't hear till you play the record is that the song slides into post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye, with flecks of those Yeezus-y, "Gorgeous"-ish guitar licks and, more importantly, the inscrutable Auto-Tune muck-vocals that wrap epics like "Runaway" and "Blood on the Leaves." The Weeknd's deployed similar sounds in his young career, but "Tell Your Friends" has an unmistakable Kanye flavor.
By now you've got the unconventional "I can't feel my face when I'm with you" and the graphic "I can make that pussy rain, often" in your pocket—but you'll also receive gems like "to say that we're in love is dangerous, but girl I'm so glad we're acquainted" and, if you're feeling straightforward and don't have time for the word "have," the little gem "we can sex all night."
For the fine-maned fan of prescription medications: "I'm that n---a with the hair / Singin bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill."
For the whimsical cocaine user: "My god white, he in my pocket / He get me redder than the devil till I go nauseous."
For the unrepentant stoner/drinker/user: "When I'm fucked up, that's the real me."
For the one who just hit rock bottom and is seeking help: "I’m a prisoner to my addiction / I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold / I’m a prisoner to my decisions."
"Often," "The Hills," "Earned It," and, of course, "Can't Feel My Face"—they're all still going so strong, all refusing to get stale, and will keep doing so for months, and, in at least a few cases, years. Ditto for more than a few of the other soon-to-be-singles. Especially "Acquainted."
This is the guy who opened his final mixtape trilogy installment with a delirious cover of "Dirty Diana." And the guy who gleefully made his Song of the Summer contender as loving an MJ tribute as we've heard in recent memory. So yeah, Beauty Behind the Madness keeps going there, especially on the "We Are the World" sized album closer, "Angel."
The first moment on the album: A screeching guitar, thundering arena stomps, gigantic strings. From there, a handful of songs are insular, mixtape-Weeknd-y, but just as many are designed for enormity. And not in the way that an after-hours song like "Often" makes itself catchy enough and repeatable enough to get even casual fans screaming along—jams like "Real Life" and the album closer, the six-minute-17-second "Angel," are going to have first-timers holding their lighters and belting along after two minutes have passed.
No shock to folks who've been on the Weeknd train for more than a minute, but the emphasis on guitars is still a pleasant surprise. From Ed Sheeran's clean electric plucking on "Dark Times" to the acoustic licks that build "Shameless" to the aforementioned bruising entree to "Real Life," this thing's axe-stacked.
The Weeknd's got lyrics and song structures and vocal chops for days, but the assortments of sounds he fills his work with might be his most lasting legacy. All over this thing are blasts and flourishes that could soundtrack Disney's Haunted Mansion ride or wind up in a grimy Phantom of the Opera dance remix.
The headliners are Lana Del Rey, who feels her soul burning on "Prisoner," and Ed Sheeran, who's got a black eye and blood on his pillow, and they both deliver. But even better are the 26-year-old Brit and Simon Cowell signee known as Labrinth, who trades evocative vox with the Weeknd on "Losers," and brand-newbie Maty Noyes, who swoops in toward the end of the huge "Angel" finale with a performance that'll crack your heart. Here's a preview (ignore the Lana visuals):
And, perfect timing, the either 17- or 18-year-old Noyes just dropped her first song as a Republic Records artist:
When a new album isn't immediately immaculately perfect in the post-iPod world, we all get hit with waves of "now I want to switch over to [insert other favorite artist you're reminded of/hankering for]." With this album, if it's not Michael Jackson (it's not), it's Drake. "Can't Feel My Face"'s ending feels like it's time for a "6 Man" break; at one point you can't ignore that a melody is identical to the Drizzy edition of Fetty Wap's "My Way." That's okay, though—(the 6) God made playlists for this very reason.
The beginning finds Abel lamenting, "Heaven only lets a few in / It's too late for me to choose it / Don't waste precious tears on me, I'm not worth the misery / I'm better off when I'm alone." By the end, he's still not sure he'll end up in a successful relationship, but he's positive his current love is an actual angel:
'Cause all I see are wings, I can see your wings
But I know what I am and the life I live, yeah, the life I live
And even though I sin, maybe we are born to live
But I know time will tell if we're meant for this, yeah if we're meant for this
The first and last songs are obviously, purposefully knitted together, but the committed/casual/celebratory/crazed vignettes along the way mirror the start/stop journey we all face on the winding roads of drugs, sex, life and love.
Three of the 14 tracks are more than or close to six minutes; one is five-and-a-half. It's not so much about length as it is about the outros, though. They're funhouse mirror versions of the preceding song, like 2011's "Gone," above, and its mixtape brethren, the songs that built the Weeknd.
On "As You Are," a conventionally charming, warm-night-in-Miami-sounding cut, Abel closes shop after three minutes in order to conduct a swaying, sibilant symphony that never worries about revisiting the chorus. "Angel," conversely, is a "Hey Jude"-ishly "we're gonna do this refrain all damn night, kids" anthem.