DNA: Tracing The Musical Genes Of “Beauty Behind the Madness”

Behind the Madness is The Weeknd’s first fully fleshed-out pop record, a concerted push to finally top the pop charts (and it’s working). A New York Times article published late last month ended with an anecdote about Abel Tesfaye meeting one of his heroes for the first time, a “still spry enough for the club” Quincy Jones (aged 82), at a Vegas nightclub. Jones gave Tesfaye one of the greatest compliments a musician can ever receive. “Yeah, I used to make music like that,” Jones told Tesfaye. “Sounds good.”

The Michael Jackson comparisons have been around for years, and they’re intensifying. However, there’s much more to the Weeknd than being compared to the greatest performer of all time. We’ve crawled some of the more hidden references in his album, tracing the grooves of history to help you better understand some of the musical DNA woven throughout his lush (and only halfway lurking this time around) new LP, Beauty Behind the Madness.

Barry Manilow, “Copacabana,” 1978
In Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd shares a dark narrative called “In the Night.” It’s about a young woman and the hardships that beset her, which she has to relive over and over again as she attempts to dance it off in the night. Driving to the recording studio, Abel Tesfaye likes to entwine his head in some classics like the on-wax narrative of Barry Manilow’s jaunty disco track “Copacabana.” This tells the story of a Copacabana showgirl, Lola, her lover, a bartender named Tony, and a mobster named Rico, who after a long night eyeing Lola in the club, oversteps his boundaries. This leads to a brawl, resulting in the death of Tony.

Lola, devastated, never recovers. Thirty years later she still occupies the same space, dressed in the same refinery as she did before that fateful night.

Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean,” 1982
In the New York Times article published last month, there’s an anecdote about The Weeknd playing “In the Night” for Ron Perry, president of Songs Music Publishing (which handles The Weeknd’s publishing). Perry, feeling the groove and in raptures after a first-listen, exclaimed: “It’s Billie Jean’! It’s Billie [loving] Jean!”

The pre-chorus for “Real Life,” the opening track off Beauty Behind the Madness, is also evocative of the bridge on “Billie Jean.” Both tracks reference maternal advice that relates to their son’s behavior, warning them of the dangers of the path they’re treading. For Jackson, it goes “Mother always told me be careful who you love/ And be careful of what you do cause the lies become the truth.” Tesfaye’s mom comes down a little harder on her son: “Mama called me destructive/ Said it’d ruin me one day/Cause every woman that loved me/ I seemed to push them away.”

the weeknd

The Hills Have Eyes, 1977
In the chorus for the lead single off Beauty Behind the Madness Tesfaye sings, “The Hills have eyes, the hills have eyes…” It’s a double entendre not just for the Hollywood Hills where he’s been living out his debauched existence for the last three or four years, but the 1977 horror classicThe Hills Have Eyes. It tells the story of a naive vacationing family who run into a bunch of feral inbreds in the middle of the desert, directed by Wes Craven (RIP, who later went on to make Scream).Image: Wikimedia

Vangelis, “Chariots Of Fire,” 1981
In its review of “I Can’t Feel My Face,” Pitchfork wrote that the song “could have come from an alternate-dimension Thriller, produced by New Age composer Vangelis instead of Quincy Jones.” Who the hell is Vangelis? Vangelis, as it turns out is the lion-haired composer of the majestic “Chariots of Fire.” As it happens, that annoying-as-hell tune was once at the top of the Billboard 100–in May, 1982. He made up for it by scoring Blade Runner.

Sabhattin Ali, 1974
The credits for “Often” list the name “Sabhattin Ali.” Ali was a Turkish poet whose lyrics were sung in this 1974 single by Turkish singer Nükhet Duru (which was thus sampled by the Weeknd).

Sabhattin spent time in and out of prison because of his poems, and, it’s suspected, was eventually murdered by his own government in an attempt to silence him.

Soul Dog, “Can’t Stop Loving You,” 1976
The Kanye West assisted production on “Tell Your Friends” samples Carl Marshall’s and the Soul Dog’s “Can’t Stop Loving You,” a track that’s been spliced before by West’s mentor No I.D. for Common’s “Hungry,” off the throwback One Day It’ll All Make Sense album, and on plenty of other notable hip hop tracks. In the 1970s, Carl Marshall was a regular on the Southern Soul music circuit and is relevant there even to this day. Marshall’s bejeweled outfits and love-struck gaze doesn’t exactly line up with the image Tesfaye portrays but there’s no denying the weightiness of both their heart’s bearing, whether it’s love or the forlornness replacing it.

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