What a difference a few years can make. In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, otherwise known as the Weeknd, was recording woozy bedroom R&B demos and slowly making waves on the blogosphere. This week, he topped the Billboard charts with his third proper album Beauty Behind the Madness, and its summer-conquering hit single “Can’t Feel My Face” has enjoyed a nice run at number one. He’s one of 2015’s biggest breakout artists, the slow-building culmination of a masterful star-making campaign including Ariana Grande collaborations and motion picture soundtracks. By all accounts, Beauty Behind the Madness is poised to be absolutely huge.

It certainly sounds huge. From the stirringly histrionic strings on opener “Real Life” to the subwoofer-shattering bass on “The Hills” and the thundering synth stampede on future-hit “In the Night,” everything about Beauty is big. The record hops stylistically between genres, trying its hand at trap-pop (“Often”), torch balladry (“Angel”), and a little bit of ill-advised Hobbit rock (the laughable Ed Sheeran-assisted “Dark Times”). Tesfaye wants to cater to all audiences – such is the nature of the big plea for major-label superstardom.

The Weeknd’s constant quest for women and substances becomes a titanic struggle for hedonistic sublimation. Every one-night stand is a heartbreaker, every lost evening an existentialist statement. Tesfaye just wants someone who can understand him, man. Considering the album’s expectations and aspirations, it would be just short of a miracle if Beauty didn’t collapse under the weight of its own madness. And to its credit, it doesn’t, at least, not entirely. When it’s not trying to be something much grander, the Weeknd’s third album is a consistently good piece of subversive pop.

Despite how strange the pairing may look on paper, it makes perfect sense that Lana Del Rey makes a late B-side appearance on the overwrought “Prisoner.” The Weeknd and LDR are two sides of the same noir-pop coin that’s gained increasing traction in the last few years, a pattern of lush sonic instrumentation addled by a heavy dose of self-generated mystery and Gatsby-esque ambition. Lana Del Rey takes her inspiration from 60s pop, while Tesfaye looks to the days of future past. “Losers” is a wonderful mélange of gospel rave-up and Bhasker-aping beats. The sleazy “Acquainted” is perhaps the most proximate acknowledgement of the “PBR&B” movement from which the Weeknd originated. And say whatever you will about the merciless overplaying of “Can’t Feel My Face,” but when heard in its full-length context, embedded dead center in the LP, it’s still an absolute banger. It’s not the only time that Tesfaye wears his MJ influences on his sleeve either, as one listen to the mid-90s MJ-biting “As You Are” will indicate.

The endless partying and self-pitying grows a tad wearisome in the album’s second half as Tesfaye’s ambitions begin to outgrow his abilities. As far as I’m concerned, the record could have closed perfectly with the sensational tenth track “In The Night,” a number one hit waiting to happen. Then again, Tesfaye’s ethos wouldn’t make much sense if his chronic excess ended just shy of his musical output. Still, 65 minutes is pretty long for a top 40 artist.

How strange it seems that of this decade’s early alternative R&B phase, the Weeknd should be its breakout star. Miguel has the swagger and panache. Frank Ocean has the voice and the songwriting. And yet, here we have Abel Tesfaye at the top of the charts, scraping the limits of the pop stratosphere with that head-scratcher of a haircut. Still, as anyone who watched the VMAs could tell you, pop music in 2015 is strange. He’s not the pop star we need, but he’s the mightily bizarre artist we deserve.

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