Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s get working for this one today.
Today, we’re here for The Weeknd (aka: Abel Tesfaye), a guy who, depending on your circles, was only really known last year as either “dude on that Ariana Grande track” or “Indie Critic Boom, Pop Market Bust #86″. He’s been in music for a few years, but 2015’s his pop takeover, first with “Earned It” from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, and then “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” from his new album Beauty Behind the Madness, a record that’s played great with critics and audiences alike. He’s going to be a pop force going forward, so let’s take a look.
A driving force behind The Weeknd is he’s very much a Drake or Taylor Swift; someone with a distinct persona that’s readily apparent in their songs. For Tesfaye, that persona is basically the Venn diagram overlay of “Dirty Diana”, “Closer”, and “Say You Will” while totally missing the point that those songs are about freaked out, lonely, pathetic dudes. His music plays with control and sex (and a lotta drug use) on the most surface level possible; he looks at coked out, needy hook-ups and thinks “shit’s dope” without considering what kind of fucked up baggage a person needs to get there. It’s like that bro who sees Fight Club and thinks Brad Pitt’s the good guy. I wouldn’t call it a coincidence that Fifty Shades of Grey was the Trojan Horse aspect of The Weeknd’s campaign for pop stardom.
And I mean campaign very nearly literally. Every move from “Love Me Harder” until now has been selling a palatable version of The Weeknd to a mass audience; it doesn’t get much closer to shaking hands and kissing babies in the pop world than slick collaborations with Max Martin and features with Possible Actual Baby Ariana Grande. Then you’ve got “Earned It”, where Tesfaye got to pretend models in high-waist bikini bottoms with taped up T-and-A and “you earned this dick” lyrics were in character for Fifty Shades of Grey, and not just his usual aesthetic hemmed at the edges. But “The Hills” going to number one feels like the campaign has ended in triumph.
“The Hills” is The Weeknd back in his moody, hazy, wheelhouse. The song opens with stabs of massive synth fuzz like a drug trip before dropping down to a sparse hi-hat/snare beat with light synth for the verses. Horror movie style strings start playing under the beat as the verses build, and, because I guess The Weeknd just wanted to make a Halloween banger, the chorus starts with a woman’s scream. The strings reach fever pitch while the beat goes full on pop-trap and Tesfaye jumps into his falsetto for a chorus that might be as on the nose as white powder from a glass table, but is still fairly catchy. The music doesn’t deviate from this palette too much–there are no sweeping flourishes to the final chorus or anything–but the bridge/outro is an appropriately haunted sounding bit of atmospherics and piano interplay (complete with an outro sung in Amharic, the language Tesfaye grew up with and the first language of Ethiopia). Interestingly enough, “The Hills” is technically Beauty Behind the Madness‘ lead single; it was released before “Can’t Feel My Face” but has only just now peaked. I get it though: if you liked the winking entendre there and in “Love Me Harder”, then you can get through the sex and drugs on “The Hills” just fine.
With the order his singles have crested, “The Hills” can’t help but feel like The Weeknd rebranding on some level. Not only is his normal schtick back, but it’s back in the bluntest way possible. Dude’s two albums, three mixtapes, and four years into his career; using “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” as a hook is uninspired. Let’s see some more lyrics.
“Your man on the road, he doin’ promo/You said, ‘Keep our business on the low-low'” Would it surprise you to know that The Weeknd has a pretty big Drake cosign?
“I’m just tryna get you out the friend zone” Bro, if you’re coming over for an agreed upon smash, I don’t think either of y’all have to worry about the friend zone.
“I can’t find your house, send me the info” I only mention this line because Tesfaye sings it in this lecherous croak, and the image of him trying to still seduce this woman while being totally lost in her neighborhood is too funny to pass up.
“I only call you when it’s half-past five” As someone who used to have to wake up and be out the door at half past five, no one is having fun at half past five. Trust me.
“I only love it when you touch me, not feel me/When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” #TinderBiosBeLike
“I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you” Holy shit, Abel, you have a flippant attitude toward the people you rely on for sex, we get it.
“Drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf” Holy shit, Abel, you have a flippant attitude toward the substances you rely on to feel ~alive~, we get it.
I did a catch up on The Weeknd before Beauty Behind the Madness came out, and I like a lot of his stuff, but his biggest downfalls are always going to be subject matter and a painful lack of self-awareness. Like Lana “the most problematic of faves” Del Rey, Tesfaye’s playing around with a purposely fucked up character here, but doesn’t do enough on “The Hills” and elsewhere to make the character seem big enough or removed enough to be meaningful in any way, and the “don’t like me, just fuck me” attitude gets wearing in how unthinking it gets. Even Del Rey feels like she’s inching toward awareness these days. For the short term, though, “The Hills” is a decent song and an introduction to The Weeknd proper. Welcome to his twisted fantasy.