On "Beauty Behind the Madness", The Weeknd achieves two things: he hits the mainstream, hard, with a collection of songs that marry the alt-R&B sensibilities of his previous work with huge hooks that will be all over radio well into 2016; and he goes out of his way to remind the world that the best weeknds (not to mention the other five days of the week) are spent doing drugs and screwing.
It's been five years since Abel Tesfaye broke out, gaining the attention of critics, but not necessarily music buyers, with a trilogy of EPs that got the blogosphere as high as the man himself, at least for a while. But although his full-length debut Kiss Land was far from a flop, it marked a slight cooling-off. His sound stagnated and the hype began to fall away.
At that point, Tesfaye could either resign himself to being a Pitchfork favourite with a small but loyal fanbase, throwing out EPs every so often, or instead find a way to channel his considerable talent into a greater ambition: to be known. To be idolised. To be a popstar.
He chose to be a popstar.
Not that Beauty Behind the Madness is a pop album per se. Sonically, this record isn't too far adrift of the left-leaning, mostly downtempo, dreamy electronic R&B that he patented on Trilogy and Kiss Land. But right from go there's a sense that these songs are constructed differently. The production, handled by Weeknd himself with a massive array of collaborators from pop's go-to hitmaker Max Martin to Illangelo (who worked on Drake's best album, Take Care) and Kanye, sounds not just expensive but warm and inviting where before it was cold.
The wreckage of a car goes up in flames in the slickly shot video for The Hills and it's easy enough to imagine these songs exploding in similar fashion when The Weeknd hits the road with this record. But don't confuse the active pursuit of commercial success with any kind of dumbing down - this is a body of work which tells a story, not just of girls and coke and sex and pills (and then the same again, please), but of an artist realising the sheer scale of his potential.
The Kanye-assisted Tell Your Friends is a clear highlight, an homage to the soul classics which were sampled, interpolated and reinvented by West's first two albums, before he sidestepped into harder, more 21st century sounds. The lyrics on that song, like on much of this album, are frequently terrible and always immensely quotable: "I'm that n**ga with the hair, singing 'bout popping pills, f**king b*tches, livin' life so trill". For the Weeknd, it seems, sleep is just that thing that gets in the way of the really important stuff.
Another theme that pops up here and there is fame which, as any Drake fan will know, is something which must be referenced at length if you want the world to know that (A) you're obscenely rich and successful and (B) it's still not easy being you. However the majority of Beauty is concerned with getting high and getting laid, and that's no bad thing.
The first two thirds of the tracklist are so frequently punctuated with moments of brilliance that after half an hour you might need a breather. The single Can't Feel My Face, which has blown up just about everywhere, has Weeknd channeling Michael Jackson on a delicate, falsetto-laden bridge which then subverts expectations by dropping out into a chorus with the grooviest of basslines. The song feels at once supersized and coolly understated, utterly tailored for radio, a trick repeated on several other highlights from the slow opener Real Life to Losers, with its building, relentlessly addictive piano riff.
The album falls off a little in the final stretch, and might have made a stronger statement about Tesfaye's self-appointed position at the head of the pack if it wasn't propped up by duets with Ed Sheeran (on the forgettable Dark Times) and on Prisoner with Lana Del Rey, pop's eternal dementor. But make no mistake, he is at the head of the pack, and there's no need to "go tell your friends about it" - soon enough, they'll know.