All bets regarding Abel Tesfaye's career arc were off once Trilogy, material previously released at no (financial) cost to the listener, went platinum. For a period after that, it seemed like the singer had peaked just short of pop-star status. His eager congregation pushed Kiss Land, the proper debut, to number two in the U.S., yet none of its singles, not even the one that featured Drake, reached the Hot 100. "Love Me Harder," a duet with labelmate Ariana Grande released in 2014, proved to be a masterstroke. It put Tesfaye in the Top Ten for the first time and began a streak of similarly effective singles that preceded -- and are included on -- Beauty Behind the Madness. "Earned It," a ballad recorded for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, showed that he could adapt to a traditional pop backdrop. That cut a path for "The Hills," in which Tesfaye alleviated his "day one" base with a typically degenerate slow jam, co-produced by Illangelo, that affirmed "When I'm fucked up, that's the real me" while taking the toxic narrative a step further with lines like "Drugs started feelin' like it's decaf." And then "Can't Feel My Face," a sleek slice of retro-modern disco-funk produced by Max Martin and Ali Payami, landed in June 2015. An obvious pop move, it worked -- it went to number one in the U.S. and several other territories. Tesfaye skillfully delivered his biggest hooks as he sang about dependency in that part-anguished, part-euphoric fashion derived from Michael Jackson. Like its advance singles, the rest of Beauty Behind the Madness is R&B and pop as drug-den paella: chemical and sexual abasement, self-loathing, and self-absorbed belligerence over narcotized sludge and less expected moves that peak with the wholly sweet "As You Are" and crest with a big-band diversion on "Losers." Uneventful collaborations with Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, and Lana Del Rey add star power, though the last of that pack contributes to a moment where Tesfaye turns another corner by acknowledging a dead end through the fog, "addicted to a life that's so empty and so cold." The commercial strides are obvious. The creative advancements are less apparent, obstructed by some unappealing measures, but they're in there.
Beauty Behind the Madness
(Digital Download - Island / Universal #)
Review by Andy Kellman