Let it be known that the production on the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness rules. There’s no denying that the beats are killer, the dreamy, woozy atmosphere is intriguing, and the music is overall quite addictive. This addictiveness, however, masks the questions the album raises about excess and party culture.
The songs primarily focus around sex and drugs, and how they are superior to intimacy and sobriety. In the opening track, “Real Life,” the speaker says that “every woman that loved me / I seemed to push them away,” revealing his attitude toward traditional love — yet he boasts about his sexual prowess in “Often,” saying things like, “Baby, I can make that pussy rain.” In “Losers,” he asserts that “only losers go to school,” and that he doesn’t need it because he “makes [his] own sense.” So, he doesn’t think that love or study matter, and in “Tell Your Friends” he reveals what he really wants out of life: “Money is the only thing I’m chasin’ / And some dope dimes on some coke lines / Gimme head all night, cum four times.” The speaker exchanges cultural expectations such as monogamous love and education for an excess of sex and drugs; in other words, rather than critically engaging and dealing with these expectations (which probably do deserve questioning), he opts for an extreme, sensual escape from them.
The way the lyrics are put together reflects this desire to escape. They are often incoherent, which combines with the woozy atmosphere to emulate the advice of a drunk and stoned dude who has no idea what the conversation’s about to begin with. In “Tell Your Friends,” for example, the Weeknd sings, “We are not the same, I am too reckless / I’m not tryna go in that direction / These niggas, they been doin’ too much flexin’ / And they about to call the wrong attention.” What does he mean here? Who is he not the same as? What direction is that direction? He criticizes flexing and calling the “wrong kind” of attention while he’s the one getting high, buying fancy stuff, and fucking everybody — but it rhymes and sounds tough. It is important that here the Weeknd proves himself correct: he truly makes his “own sense.” But what use is it if it communicates nothing?
It’s difficult to tell if the Weeknd’s speaker is painfully self-aware or wilfully self-deluded. Most of the time he enjoys his lifestyle perfectly, like in “The Hills”: “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” Also, in “I Can’t Feel My Face,” he sings, “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you / but I like it,” essentially defining a gratifying relationship as one having a pleasant, numbing effect. The catchiness of these songs drills these ideas, unquestioned, into the listener’s head. In fact, it almost feels dirty to question these ideas after being told for so many songs about how much better chasing fleeting pleasure is than engaging with anything difficult.
Other times, however, the speaker seems legitimately unfulfilled by his lifestyle, such as in the closing track, “Angel,” where he laments that he is “desensitized to feeling these emotions.” The fact that these sentiments come at the end of the album perhaps reveals how the Weeknd actually feels, but this perspective seems lost on his audience based on the popularity of songs like “Often” and “I Can’t Feel My Face” in comparison to everything else.
As with Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools,” the popularity of these songs is not the fault of the artist so much as an indicator of a culture-wide desire to be constantly thrilled and intoxicated, and a culture-wide ability to ignore the contexts of their party songs. Intentionally or not, Beauty Behind the Madness exemplifies the emptiness of escapism, and should not be mistaken for a cool, fun, and sexy summertime album.