REVIEW: The Weeknd – Starboy
A moment of silence, please, in mourning of the pineapple we all knew and loved.
When The Weeknd (Abél Makkonen Tesfaye) sheared his signature entangled dreadlocks, social media exploded. Was this some bravura artistic statement? The promise of a Bowie-like musical reinvention? What would this mean for his hotly anticipated third album, Starboy?
As it turned out, absolutely nothing. Tesfaye explained his haircut with “I could only sleep on one side of my face”, and testified that washing his hair was easier now, too. Just as well, really, because if you expected Starboy to reveal layers to The Weeknd’s musical persona we hadn’t seen before, you’re in for a disappointment.
That’s not to say that’s a bad thing. The Weeknd, like all pop stars who manage to straddle both popular and critical success, works because his persona works. The Weeknd is an intelligent guy trapped in a hedonistic, self-destructive lifestyle which he makes no apologies for, and appears in no rush to leave. This lifestyle comes with lots of sex, lots of drugs, lots of partying, and lots of fragile masculinity.
His obsession with both (unconvincingly) proving his own sexual prowess and uncovering the sexual histories of his partners would, in the hands of a lesser artist (think Enrique Iglesias) make him seem unlovable and untouchable, but The Weeknd’s dark production and mournful voice place him alongside Weezer and Drake in the tradition of male artists who display sexism as an act of self-flagellation, not bravado. Mostly.
After acknowledging his newfound fame with typical disaffection on the titular opener, Starboy quickly finds The Weeknd moving back to his self-destructive comfort zone among Party Monster’s ominous synths and stabbing, rhythmic vocals. This mood characterises much of the album’s style, but it’s never done better than on the third track, False Alarm, which wraps the aforementioned fragile masculinity in a beat resembling a psychotic I Can’t Feel My Face – the chorus’ synths pound like a boot to the face, while Tesfaye abandons his traditional crooning for a scream which sounds like James Brown getting kicked in the nuts while on meth. It’s awesome.
Reminder is a fairly boring defence to charges that The Weeknd has “gone mainstream”; while Rockin is an ode to his rock n’ roll lifestyle (which he for once seems to be enjoying). Next up is Secrets, a portrait of sexual jealousy. None of these are bad songs, but they’re notes we’ve heard Tesfaye hit before, and none of them have musicianship anywhere near as compelling as False Alarm’s gut-punch of a chorus.
But then things really do take a turn for the worse. True Colours is by some distance the worst song on the album – a woefully misguided attempt at a ballad which focuses again on a new partner’s former lovers, but frames the questions as sincere and loving. It’s not that this behaviour is any worse here than elsewhere on the album; it’s that on those songs the production pushes against the singer. When ugly sentiments are backed by dark or mocking production, songs such as these can be intriguing. When the production attempts to make those ugly sentiments romantic, I wretch. I wretched a fair bit during this song.
Starlgirl Interlude isn’t really a song so much as a reminder that Lana Del Ray remains the queen of sounding bored by sex (truly an unexpected niche for a pop star to have filled), and, as a result, I was about ready to give up on Starboy – until salvation arrived.
Sidewalks – the ninth track – is a goddamn masterpiece, another rendition of the familiar “look how far I’ve come” song, but done to utter perfection. A flighty guitar line floats above heavy, pounding synths as Tesfaye exorcises what sounds like years of angst and sorrow and gratitude about his hard upbringing. Sam Smith’s voice delivers the post-chorus like a detached messenger from on high, while the ever-reliable Kendrick Lamar spits a second verse which compliments Tesfaye’s perfectly, and completes the song. After all, if there’s anyone I’d believe when speaking about their present joy and past misery, it would be the good kid from the MAAD city.
But this is a double album, so we’re still only halfway.
Six feet Under and Love to Lay work well back to back, as they profess The Weeknd’s grudging admiration for two different women who – in their deliberate rejection of “love” – clearly remind him of himself. A Lonely Night is a return to the familiar world of “whatever you may think; we were never anything more than a one night stand”. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation, but does boast a sick synth solo, so small blessings I guess.
Attention finds The Weeknd back in middling ground, singing about a woman who wants “more than a fuck” out of their relationship, but will (apparently) never be satisfied with however much attention he gives her. The beat tries to play this as a heroic, defiant declaration, but it comes off as the preening self-justification of terrible boyfriend.
The album is then rescued once more by Ordinary Life, a very good song which sees The Weeknd seem to honestly regret his self-destructive spiral, but unable to find a way out. It is followed by Nothing Without You, an unexpected attempt at an earnest love song which kind of works, and All I Know, which doesn’t. He pleads with an unknown lover to give him another chance, claiming she’s simply heard “too many lies” about him – an unconvincing defence given The Weeknd’s musical persona.
But then such declarations of love are brought home and fully realised on the album’s penultimate song, Die For You – a track which, while not Starboy’s best, is the truest to who The Weeknd is. It’s a love song sung by someone who, until now, never believed in love – a voice drenched in mistakes and self flagellation, but emerging from the waterfall of heavy synths with an earnest confession of love – when Tesfaye sings that he’d “die for you”, you believe it, in spite of yourself.
The album closer I Feel It Coming seems, at first, anticlimactic, but its funky production and throwback charm are so infectious that it could comfortably sit alongside anything from Daft Punk’s 2013 masterpiece Random Access Memories – praise doesn’t get much higher than that.
Starboy is a flawed album. It’s too long, and simply isn’t interesting enough to justify that length. The musicianship is no great leap from what’s been heard on earlier Weeknd projects, and the lyrical content can slide from boring to repugnant.
But enough of it is good to justify a listen, and some of it is even great. If The Weeknd can pump out songs like False Alarm or Sidewalks, his continued presence in the pop-o-sphere is a welcome one, regardless of whether or not he grows his hair back.
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