By Alec Warkentin
XO / Republic
Starboy, the latest from Toronto-based songbird The Weeknd — moniker of Abel Tesfaye — is an unfortunate expression of the Faustian bargain: a trade of what made him originally interesting, for the benefit of radio-friendly superstardom.
While he’s certainly come a long way from his “drinking Alizé with his cereal for breakfast” roots, having found unprecedented success over the last two years, Starboy marks a shift in direction from the self-abusing efficacy of his earlier work — and that’s not necessarily for the better.
Tesfaye seems to have fallen into the realm of mainstream R&B braggadocio (which isn’t entirely unwarranted), but the progression from the fragility of his prior releases to the conventions of the “superstar status” ethos has diminished his role of the interesting, heart-on-his-sleeve-and-drugs-on-his-upper-lip image that made him so endearing in the first place.
Sure, some of the hedonistic tendencies are still there, but it no longer seems to have the same part-humility, part-hard-truth aspect of Tesfaye’s earlier songwriting (particularly his Trilogy mixtapes) which featured an obviously younger, more exploratory form of basement-R&B: esoteric samples, confessional lyricism, stark, crystalline synth backdrops, and an atmosphere of melancholia that made it cool to revel in lachrymose debauchery.
Tesfaye himself seems to address some of the topics of his previous works on Starboy, particularly on the stand-out track “Reminder,” which has him ~reminding~ the listener that he “just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow,” before reeling with his newfound status as a household name in the following line: “I’m like goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice / Goddamn bitch I am not a bleach boy.”
Considering the lyrical content of Tesfaye’s releases, this reference to his mega-hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” off of 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, can be taken as rather ironic to both listener and artist when considering the supposedly conservative views of the masses that have propelled the decidedly un-conservative Tesfaye to stardom, and the truth that if the vibe of Starboy is any indication of Tesfaye’s future projects, there’s a lot more Teen Choice Awards coming his way.
This overt pop bent isn’t inherently a bad thing, but unlike Tesfaye’s past work, the material on Starboy lacks the charisma and magnetism required to save it from its most glaring issue; Starboy features 18 tracks — a 68-minute runtime — with little variation to separate the soppy, overworked 808-driven pop tunes from one another. The result is an album that feels more than a tad bloated.
It seems that Tesfaye has fallen for a common pop music pitfall that arises once an artist starts receiving massive radio play: albums become less about the coherent whole, and more about drawing the listener’s ear to the singles.
Case in point: the features on Starboy, which are comprised of a long list of the usual suspects, from the certified collab-gold Daft Punk (on not one, but two tracks), to fellow phenom Future, and the omnipresent Kendrick Lamar, who seems to have made it his mission to feature on every major album of 2016.
While each of the artists featured on Starboy manage to bring something to the table, for better or worse, they contribute to the overall feeling that this album was produced under the umbrella of “too big to fail.” Many of the tracks give off this atmosphere of pre-packaged, inoffensive, formulaic radio-rap ready to climb up the charts because that’s what they were produced to do.
Maybe this is an overtly cynical approach to dissecting Starboy, as anyone who came up listening to his Trilogy set of mixtapes can attest to knowing that The Weeknd finding success wasn’t so much a question of “How?” as it was a question of “When?”
Tesfaye is clearly no longer the under-the-radar wunderkind who somehow managed to soundtrack a thousand late-nights (and their accompanying morning-afters), but by breaking into the role he was undoubtedly destined for — that of a major hitmaker — he seems to have followed a steady decline in terms of captivation and originality that began with his lacklustre debut studio album Kiss Land in 2013.
The unfortunate truth is that albums like Starboy will eventually be forgotten. Stacked up against the dime-a-dozen pop releases that managed to maybe, just maybe, shuffle off one or two memorable songs before they fade into the backdrop, but if that works for The Weeknd, who are we to judge?
If the explicit references to expensive cars, jewelry, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous found across Starboy are any indication, Tesfaye is reaping the benefits of much-deserved success and enjoying every minute of it.
In his own words: He’s a motherfuckin’ star, boy.Starboy, The Weeknd