The Weeknd and His Autobiographical album Beauty Behind Madness
by Kendra Gephart
Many people have claimed this artist as the new Michael Jackson. His music is atmospheric, enigmatic, trip-hip-hop fused R and B. The artist is the Weeknd, and the only way for his fans to know him is through the music he sings. He has released 3 mixtapes, and 2 albums in his music career. His most recent album is Beauty Behind Madness, which was released in 2015. This album gave his fans a chance to discover who the Weeknd is. Beauty Behind Madness is an autobiographical album that describes the Weeknd’s early years, his drug addiction, and his African roots.
The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, was born in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, in 1990. He is of Ethiopian descent and speaks the native language called Amharic. After dropping out of school and leaving home, he began to pursue a musical career. He is a solo artist. The Weeknd faced homelessness and drug addiction in his early life, which has also inspired the lyrics of many of his songs.
The Weeknd’s musical career began in 2008 when he joined Toronto-based R&B group, the Noise. Eventually, one year later after joining the group, the focus became solely on the Weeknd and his music. The year 2011 contained one of the most important moments of Abel Tesfaye’s early career. He met the fellow Toronto-star and multi-nominated music award artist, Drake. Drake sent a twitter message to his fans urging them to check out the release of the Weeknd’s online free mixtape. The tweet linked to The Weeknd`s website and stated, “Bring your love baby I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain” (Cowie 2015). These are lyrics of one of the Weeknd`s first songs. Drake has over 26.7 million twitter followers. This meeting with Drake and his tweet gave a chance of fame for the Weeknd.
The Weeknd’s first mixtape was House of Balloons, released on March 21, 2011. This mixtape was downloaded more than 200,000 times in three weeks, and it was nominated for Polaris Music Prize, which is based on artistic merit, rather than sales or genre of music. While many fans craved for an interview of this new artist, the Weeknd always refused. Jon Caramanica from the New York Times, comments on the mystery of the Weeknd: “The only photos of him in circulation were deliberately obscured; he didn’t do interviews. His reticence was an asset-fans devoured the music without being distracted by a personality. Their loyalty was to the songs and, in the way, to the idea of the Weeknd. He was happy to stay out of the way.”
The second mixtape he released, called Thursday, was August 18, 2011. It was also free for download. Finally, at the end of the year, he released his last mixtape on December 21, 2011, called Echoes of Silence. Tesfaye was finally getting recognized and according to New York Times, Billboard, and the Guardian, his mixtapes were named the top 10 of the year. But Tesfaye’s fame did not stop there, nor did his mysteriousness.
The years 2012 and 2013 were huge for the Weeknd. He started 2012 off with a sold out tour, and signing a major label deal with Universal’s Republic Records. He remastered his free mixtapes and combined them into the Trilogy. The Trilogy debuted at No. 5 on the Canadian album charts and No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart. But the year 2013 was even bigger. In 2012, the Weeknd started off by winning Juno Awards for R&B, Soul Recording of the Year and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Tesfaye finally released his first true album Kissland (2013). It was about his travels beyond Toronto. It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 and No 1. on the U.S iTunes chart (Cowie 2015). Tesfaye finally did his first interview ever for his album Kissland, but his fans craved more of him.
“It’s about me being who I am and stepping out of my comfort zone to try to feel something else besides what I’ve been feeling the past four years, ups and downs, in my past albums, there were never ups.”
Then the year 2015 hit, and it has been Tesfaye’s best year yet. He received more features in songs as a guest artist, more of his music featured in movies, and has had many hits from his newest album Beauty Behind Madness. He is gaining more popularity in the music industry. In fact, until the year 2015, he did not have an encyclopedia page on The Canadian Encyclopedia, which contains many famous singers born in Canada like Drake and Celine Dione. Beauty Behind Madness became a Billboard Hot 100. It sold 528,000 copies in the first week. His dark and nocturnal music is most evident on this album. On the album, he focuses on who he is. He sings about his homeless times, his drug addiction, and even has some African roots in his music. Beauty Behind Madness opens the door for fans to get to understand aspects of the Weeknd`s life.
On the album Beauty Behind Madness, listeners can imagine the Weeknd`s early life and the depth of his drug addiction. The Weeknd does not sing much about his early life in his previous music releases, but this album is different. The Weeknd himself stated about the creation of his album, “It’s about me being who I am and stepping out of my comfort zone to try to feel something else besides what I’ve been feeling the past four years, ups and downs, in my past albums, there were never ups” (Weeknd 2015). The Weeknd can now finally accept his past, and find inspiration in it. His past deals with his drug addictions, use of women, and the majority of his life being homeless. Beauty Behind Madness contains The Weeknd’s early years of being a high-school dropout.
In the song, “Losers” he makes fun of those who stayed in school. The Weeknd is proud of being a high-school dropout. He sings, “Only losers go to school, I taught myself how to move / They can`t teach what they can`t prove, come put this inside a test tube” and goes on during the climax of the song, “Now, that we`re all grown up, who do we owe it to. / We did it all alone”. The Weeknd became famous all on his own and is boasting that he did it without school. He does not regret dropping out of school. Paul Lester states about “Losers”, “On Losers, the Toronto scion of a broken home who spent his teenage years living a low-rent version of the debauched existence portrayed in his music, justifies his disavowal of education and conventional society and lays out his ambitions (Now we`re coming for the throne [lyrics from “Losers”]” (2015). But, the album also unfolds the Weeknd’s early life of homelessness.
In the song, “Tell your Friends” he reminisces about his homeless life compared to his life now. He sings, “Used to roam on Queen, now I sing Queen street anthems / Used to hate attention, now I pull up in that wagon / I was broken, I use to roam around the town when I was homeless / Me and Lamar would rob a nigga for his Jordans”. The Weeknd compares the life he had while he was homeless, to the life of fame he has now. He also sings, “Driving by the streets I used to walk through / When I had no crib [home] I guess you call that shit a miracle.” He cannot believe that he has come so far, its unreal to the Weeknd.
Another part of the Weeknd’s life that is evident on is his drug addiction. In the Weeknd’s early years, he would get high on anything he could find, there were no rules. From the New York Times article about the Weeknd’s new fame, “When Tesfaye wasn’t high, he wasn’t happy, so he did his best to avoid coming down. And when he began writing songs, he found inspiration in that haze, penning lyrics about dystopian, bacchanalian nights that he and his crew were having” (Caramanica 2015).
The Weeknd dedicated one whole song from his album to the drug cocaine: the song is “I Can`t Feel My Face”. When fans first listen to the lyrics, they think it is about a woman in the Weeknd`s life, but his true fans know it is a paean to cocaine. The Weeknd sings, “And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb / And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come / But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young.” The Weeknd is addicted to cocaine because of the effect it has on him. It makes him feel alive, young, and unstoppable. Essex Young People’s Drug and Alcohol Service describes the effect of cocaine on the body, “You can feel more energetic, alert, happy and confident.” The Weeknd sings in the main chorus, “She told me, “’Don’t worry about it’” / She told me, “’Don’t worry no more’” / We both knew we can’t go without it/She told me you’ll never be in love oh oh oooh / I can’t feel my face when I’m with you, but I love it, but I love it”. The Weeknd cannot control his addiction because without cocaine he feels like he is nothing. When he is high, his face goes numb, the pain of his life is gone, and his inspiration to write songs comes alive. However, he realizes the more he uses, the closer to death he is. According to WedMD, “The reality of cocaine hits after the high. Cocaine has powerful negative effects on the heart, brain, and emotions. Many cocaine users fall prey to addiction, with long-term and life threatening consequences. Even occasional users run the risk of sudden death with cocaine use” (Goldberg 2013). The Weeknd’s drug addiction will be the death of him.
Beauty Behind Madness contains many characteristics of Ethiopian music. The Weeknd’s family members migrated from Ethiopia during the Red Terror, which was the period of the violent overthrow of the emperor. They moved to Canada, where the Weeknd was born and raised. The Weeknd kept his Ethiopian culture alive and became fluent in Amharic (which is Ethiopian Native Language). Many of his fans were not familiar with his African roots until this album. To start off, Ethiopian music is characterized by lengthy songs, shaky voices of pain and loss, and themes of love. Hannah Giogis, an author and music critic says,
Tesfaye’s voice itself (and the length of the songs) had been a dead giveaway of the singer’s identity. His trademark vibrato, the characteristically pained whine, that pervades much of Tesfaye’s music, draws from a long Ethiopian legacy of tortured pining.
Many of Weeknd’s songs on the album such as “As You Are”, “The Hills”, “Prisoner”, “Acquainted” and “Angel” contain Ethiopian musical and vocal characteristics. They are all over four minutes long, contain the pained whining, and have themes of love, which defines Ethiopian music. One song where the audience could truly recognize the Weeknd’s Ethiopian culture (if they knew) is “The Hills”. This song is 4:02 minutes long, but the background music of the agonizing screeches and the content of love, that ties it to the tradition of Ethiopian music. Not only that, but the listeners can hear the Weeknd speak Amharic, the first track he has ever done this. “The Hills” contain these Amharic words, “Ewedihaiew, yene konjo, ewedihaiew / yene fikir fikir fikir, yen fikir fikir fikir”, which translates into, “I love you my beauty, I love you/ my love my love my love my love my love my love” (Giogis 2015). Listeners can now discover some of the Weeknd’s African roots. The Weeknd also performed “The Hills” live at Coachella musical festival in California. He had to change the lyrics to “eweaishaleu” because in Ethiopian culture, it is the way a man says it, versus “Ewedihaleu” from “The Hills” is how a woman says it. Many fans were left confused, but enlightened of the Weeknd’s Ethiopian culture. However, the Weeknd’s Ethiopian fans were awestruck. The Weeknd has gained a wide audience of Ethiopian listeners because of his musical ties to the culture. Giogis then describes the impact the Weeknd has on young Ethiopian youth as, “His voice itself, starched with intractable pain like so many Ethiopian singers who came before him, is a way back home” (Giogis 2015). This connection to Ethiopian culture widened the Weeknd’s fan base, as well as allowed his fans to understand his culture and African identity.
Beauty Behind Madness is an autobiographical album of the Weeknd’s early years, drug addiction, and African roots. The Weeknd dropped out of school and perused his musical career, thus resulting in the Weeknd taking pride in being a high school dropout and still being successful which is evident in his song “Losers”. The Weeknd also faced many years being homeless while trying to peruse his musical career. “Tell Your Friends” describes his time while being homeless, then parallels it to now. The Weeknd is notorious for his drug addiction. He wrote the song “I Can’t Feel My Face” about his love for cocaine and how he cannot live without it. Lastly, Tesfaye takes pride in his African roots and many of his songs contain the Ethiopian style music. The Weeknd is emerging from the fog, and those who want to, can finally be enlightened.
Works Cited and Further Reading:
Battan, Carrie. “Mass Seduction.” The New Yorker 91.27 (2015): 92. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Caramanica, Jon. “Can the Weeknd Turn Himself Into the Biggest Pop Star in the World?” New York Times 27 July 2015: MM40. Web.
Cowie, Del. “The Weeknd.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Dolan, Jon. “The Weeknd Beauty Behind the Madness Album Review.” Rolling Stone. 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Giorgis, Hannah. “The Weeknd’s East African Roots.” Pitchfork. 11 June 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Goldberg, Joseph. “Cocaine Use and Its Effects.” WebMD. WebMD, 23 June 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Hoby, Hermione. “The Weeknd: Sounds and Sensibility.” The Guardian. 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.