Pay better attention to your Classics professor, for the Greeks really knew how to create lasting myths and character types. Take Narcissus, the boy who loved himself. Strikingly handsome and thoroughly vain, Narcissus was lured to a still pool where he fell for his reflection. According to different tellings of the myth, the boy drowned or was turned into a flower of the same name, a yellow, daffodil-like bloom known for its numbing narcotic effect.
Flash-forward from antiquity to modernity, and The Weeknd is flawlessly living up to the image of Narcissus and the traits of narcissism. Abel Tesfaye’s 2015 Grammy Album of the Year nominee, Beauty Behind the Madness, is a love letter to himself, crafted with the most focused pop thinking displayed so far in his career. In that impossible vocal range, Tesfaye built a dark fantasy record in which he is the only male in the room, surrounded by a roster of impossibly gorgeous women and a drug stash that runneth over. It’s a "me-me-me" attitude and, at least on the singles, the result is very good.
Returning to the beginning of Tesfaye’s career — the Friday morning of The Weeknd — there’s hardly a trace of this self-focus. In 2010, the 20-year-old Canadian-born son of Ethiopian immigrants released “What You Need” from a distance, posting no pictures or wisp of his name. According to a profile in The New York Times Magazine, co-workers listened to his music at an American Apparel in Toronto as Tesfaye folded T-shirts in anonymity.
Beauty Behind the Madness finds The Weeknd taking two great strides forward. On “Can’t Feel My Face,” Tesfaye compresses the wandering compositions of his early work into radio diamonds. With several collaborators including Max Martin, the Swedish god of pop music and money, Tesfaye penned an inescapable hit, a thinly disguised love-ballad to cocaine pumping into malls and minivans across North America.
The second breakthrough also involves a good deal of cocaine. Throughout the album, Tesfaye whips out the mirror, gets a few lines in him, then stares deeply into his own eyes. But with so much euphoria in his system, Beauty is not a deep self-exploration. It’s more like an Instagram page — a performance of what Tesfaye wants to be about, a collection of lovely images all about himself.
When other people enter the Madness, rarely do they show up fully formed, or even fully clothed. “Real Life” is Tesfaye’s justification for the serial one-night stands: “Don’t waste precious tears on me, I’m not worth the misery / I’m better off when I’m alone.” “Tell Your Friends” is sexual PR, employing a dallying bud to spread the good word about Tesfaye’s artistry in the sack.
“The Hills” provides The Weeknd’s only moment of personal connection, one that exists only between “half past five” and when an Uber rolls up a few hours later. In The Weeknd universe, there aren’t any lasting characters other than Tesfaye. There are only avatars for him to bounce his own feelings off, mapping himself like a sexual edition of sonar.
Like most male pop, Tesfaye’s sexual politics are pretty atrocious. The narcissism rolls over into the bedroom, where self-obsession overrides any sort of connection above the body. It’s shady, unhealthy stuff, but in the Golden Age of Narcissism, it makes for great music. In the era of Kardashians, selfies and personal brands, The Weeknd is providing a sound track for self-worship and the lay-in-bed-and-swipe-right understanding of dating. All we can hope is that no one draws a portrait of Tesfaye in a pile of cocaine, lest he see it and turn into a flower the shape of his hair.
The Weeknd performs Sunday, December 13 at Toyota Center with Travis Scott. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
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