Swiftly following up on his 2015 release ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, hugely influential RnB Crooner The Weeknd, has returned with possibly his most significant album since his mixtape trilogy.
Having experienced serious mainstream success with his previous record, which spawned massive singles like ‘Can’t Feel my Face’ and ‘The Hills’, The Weeknd/Abel Tesfaye has now made a serious claim for pop stardom. Given that ‘Starboy’ is currently a Billboard #1 album and all 18 songs off it are sitting in the Hot 100 right now, it’s safe to say he’s succeeded at that.
From the title track and lead single, Abel is making a clear statement – both with its music, accompanying video, and the shearing of his famous roadkill hairstyle – and that is the old Weeknd, the deeply depressed, sex crazed, drug addict, is dead.
As bold as this is, Abel does not quite follow through with it on ‘Starboy’, which sees him in an odd state of flux between the old and the new. As hard as he may be trying to escape his old persona, he just can’t seem to let it go, resulting in an album which, granted is easily his most instantly catchy, but also disjointed.
Abel spends half of ‘Starboy’ making his case for mainstream dominance, exploring new wave, soul, and 80’s style funk on songs like ‘Secrets’, ‘A Lonely Night’, and his glorious Daft Punk collaboration ‘I Feel It Coming’. That Michael Jackson influence that crept on to some of last year’s singles is something he’s wearing quite proudly on his sleeve now, right down those percussive vocal tics MJ would do between lines.
For the most part, I think Abel successfully tackles these new styles; definitely sonically, as his production remains as strong as ever. I love the elastic bass, swelling synths and trickling percussion on these songs, and they’re lush and detailed enough to warrant multiple repeat listens.
With this new stylistic approach, Abel also tries to put across a new persona, that of the smooth, respectful, monogamous lover. Nowhere is this more obvious than one of the album’s highlights, ‘True Colours’, where he makes a call for his current woman to show him just that, so that he can fully dedicate himself to her.
And this is where the inconsistencies come into play, as that other half of the album has The Weeknd revert to his moody atmospheric brand of RnB, which means lyrics about substance dependency and promiscuity (mainly the latter).
While the title track and lead single didn’t really represent a significant break from this style, by second track ‘Party Monster’ it is clear he is still entrenched in it, and he continues to dip his toes in it throughout the album.
This is where I run the risk of being a hypocrite, because some of my favourite songs off the album are very much ‘classic The Weeknd’ songs. This style is something he is very good at – he made his name in it. ‘Reminder’ is probably my most listened to song off ‘Starboy’, and that’s basically just three and half minutes of him bragging about all the money he’s made and all the woman he’s having sex with over a minimalist instrumental.
On it, he references Can’t Feel My Face’s spurious Teen Choice Awards nomination (the song for people who don’t know yet is literally about cocaine), and drops some stupid yet irresistable lyrics. “Got that Hannibal, silence of the Lambo” comes close to being the track highlight, but “Got a sweet Asian chick, she go low mane” manages to top it in that particular sweepstakes, if only for how unabashedly cheesy it is.
And that segues us neatly into what remains The Weeknd’s biggest shortcomings – his lyrics.
Abel can be very hit or miss on this front, and while there are times that he is able to effectively craft stories of excess and loves darker side, all too often he falls back on clichés, and on occasion will drop a laughably bad lyric. ‘Starboy’ has a few to choose from, but none even come close to ‘Ordinary Life’ on which, in an attempt to elevate getting head while driving to some level of grandiosity, Abel softly lulls the line: “David Carradine, Imma die when I cum”, which manages to conjure up some really gross imagery, while also being pretty insensitive.
What sparse features the album has lend themselves to varying degrees of success. Daft Punk of course join Abel for the opening and closing tracks. I’m a big fan of the actual song ‘Starboy’, with its rumbling bass, bright piano hits and story of wealth and fame, although Daft Punk’s influence on the track is underplayed.
On ‘I Feel It Coming’ (which some people are hailing as song of the year), the French House duo own the track with a stunning instrumental that would have fit in nicely on Discovery. Lana Del Rey delivers some hauntingly beautiful vocals on ‘Stargirl Interlude’, a piece of psychedelic baroque pop that manages to be one of the album highlights despite how brief it is.
Elsewhere, however, the promising neo-soul instrumental of ‘Sidewalks’ is
squandered both by another phoned-in Kendrick Lamar verse, and also by one of the few baffling instances where Abel decides to use auto tune for no discernible reason.
The artist Future appears twice on this album for reasons I can’t quite fathom, on ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘All I Know’. Putting aside my distaste for Future, the first feature is pretty redundant, as he essentially repeats the chorus after Abel. And while he does get his own verse the second time around, it’s on a song that sounds far too much like his own material – sludgy and unpleasant.
At his best, The Weeknd is one of contemporary pop’s greatest artists, and there are moments on ‘Starboy’ where he absolutely proves that. But at 18 songs, the album is just too overblown, and the fluctuations in both style and tone make for a choppy experience.
Perhaps this is due to how quickly it follows up ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, but Abel could certainly have benefited from taking more time to solidify his creative vision, because the statement he is trying to make with Starboy ends up lost in the clutter.
This album is absolutely worth listening to; some of the best pop songs of the year are buried on this thing, and even many of the lesser tracks are still eminently listenable, just don’t expect a consistent experience.