Depending on when you first heard him, Abel Tesfaye – the man behind The Weeknd – has delivered a variation of impressions. Those who first heard of The Weeknd when he released one of the mixtapes within his Trilogy collection (2011, 2012) recall a calloused, desperately carnal young man, powered by cocaine and pleasure. With its catchy production, risqué content and crooning hooks, Kiss Land (2013) delivered the anti-Drake, where the admittedly broken narrator of Tesfaye’s stories exchanges depravity for glamor, cleaning his image while attempting to maintain the edge.
By the time he landed the 5x Platinum single “Can’t Feel My Face” and a track featured in a box office blockbuster, “Earned It,” off his followup Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), Tesfaye dropped the unfeeling, cynic act he had Trilogy, and turns The Weeknd into an electro-smut popstar. Beauty Behind the Madness presented The Weeknd’s idea of a club soundtrack, adding vanilla danger to raunchy synth-riddled pop songs with the help of songwriters like Max Martin, responsible for about every hit ever made. With his new style and image, The Weeknd garnered more popularity and exposure than ever before – but fans of his earlier efforts jumped off the train, lamenting what they believed the selling out of a truly unique act.
So it’s only natural that the heads walking away turned to look back at The Weeknd when he dropped the single “Starboy” late September, and replaced the polished Top-40 attempts of Beauty Behind the Madness with dark, baller-centric aesthetic. Tesfaye delivers grimy flows and addictive hooks on top of a relentless Daft Punk instrumental, recapturing some of the danger his pre-radioplay image emanated. And while second single “False Alarm” can sound awkward with its frantic pace and wanting mainstream appeal, it still earns its place as The Weeknd’s most abrasive track, evoking the dirtier production his House of Balloons (2011) mixtape possessed.
But once we actually get to listen to the album Starboy, it’s not what we want: Tesfaye seems to persist the gloss-and-glitter safety he exhibited on Beauty Behind the Madness, and rather than conclude his apparent mission to bring together his radio appeal and experimentation, he cuts it short and hands over a long album of mostly the same thing.
Tesfaye’s subject matter continues to revolve predominantly around drug use, party girls, and general hedonism – which fits, considering his sound and the audience he appeals to – but when he removes the fractured introspection from Trilogy from the equation, it sounds redundant. It succeeds in a few choice instances, however, such as on “Ordinary Life,” where his lyrics harken back to the nihilism his earlier character seemed to manifest. However, it falls short on songs like “Six Feet Under,” and instead of disturbing the listener, sounds like it’s trying too hard to exhibit an edge. The production throughout seems to suffer the same problems, as a good portion of the songs on Starboy follow the same formula for nu-disco, and borrows song and harmony structure from Michael Jackson and other 80’s hitmakers. Where it’s not faltering in dance-pop originality, it’s ruining an atmospheric, electric synth number with uninteresting hooks and delivery.
There are songs that fulfill The Weeknd’s desire to reintroduce danger to his pop sound, found in tracks like “Party Monster” and “Reminder,” which succeed in melding heated instrumentals with strong vocal performances. The short instances of experimentation, such as the inspired vocals of “Secrets,” are also highlights of the album, as they showcase what Tesfaye is capable of delivering aside from the standard fare most of Starboy presents.
When all’s said and done, however, it’s not enough: when an album is nearly 70 minutes long, a few instances of inspiration is far from satisfactory, and Starboy’s gems are too far and few between to be worth enduring for. Picking out a track or two for the playlist may be warranted, but the dry spell between “True Colors” and “Ordinary Life” is six songs long, including a characteristically bland Lana Del Rey feature on “Stargirl Interlude” and what might as well be a Kendrick Lamar song, given the lack of presence Tesfaye has on “Sidewalks.” Other low points are “Rockin’,” where The Weeknd discards any sense of identity in exchange for the most generic song on the album, and “All I Know,” where he only barely performs superior to Future’s out of place, lazy interlude.
Starboy looked interesting, and held potential to be the meeting point for The Weeknd’s pop and his earlier experimental R&B. But when the project is finally handed to us, it’s something else – a long, sparse expanse of largely uninspired electropop ballads and other people’s sounds.
Written by Adil Siddiqee