‘Starboy’ shoots for the stars but misses the mark

Culture Music
Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director
Illustration by Leone Brander, Design Director

He’s back, ladies and gentlemen. The Weeknd, or should I say Starboy, has swooped from his Toronto high-rise and laid his new album, Starboy, at our collective doorsteps, its cover popping with Tarantino- esque fonts and a looming shadow of Abel Tesfaye donning a dangling cross necklace. The Weeknd has rebranded himself (if cutting your hair and making worse music counts as ‘rebranding’) as Starboy, a blunted, moneymaking hedonist who apparently knows how to fuck, because that’s what he keeps telling us.

But Starboy is limp, like a zucchini left to fester for twelve days in the back seat of Tesfaye’s new McLaren S5, which features in the lead single’s music video. Though Tesfaye has oft masked his generally weak songwriting with a spellbinding delivery, the uninspired nature of much of Starboy’s lyrics can scarcely be ignored: “Fingers letting go of the wheel when I cum / Whe- wheel when I cum, whe-wheel when I cum / David Carradine, Imma die when I cum,” from “Ordinary Life” would be off-putting if it wasn’t so inadvertently funny. Either way, moments like these pop up much too often on Starboy, with Tesfaye’s self-serious fuckboy status on full display.

But what makes it worse this time around is the watered-down nature of the production. Much of the Weeknd’s early success was thanks to the production and mixing from Calgary virtuoso Illangelo, his grimy atmospheres providing a perfect backdrop for the Weeknd’s piercing melisma. The departure from those dark textures was evidently a good movefromafinancialstandpoint—The Weeknd had the all-time most streams by one artist in 24 hours on Spotify the night of Starboy’s release — but nearly every song is a halfhearted approximation of music that’s already been made, some of it decades ago. “True Colors,” for example, sounds as though it could very well have been a throwaway from a forgotten Backstreet Boys session circa Millenium, and just might be the worst song The Weeknd has ever released.

Even when The Weeknd returns to heavier territory, it’s soulless. “Party Monster,” though mammoth, is plastic and stiff, lacking the stark imagery and off-kilter abrasiveness that made songs like “Glass Table Girls” and “The Hills” so gripping. “I’ve seen her / Take down that tequila / Down by the litre,” he sings. That’s quite the feat, I’ll admit, but Tesfaye’s gleeful self-destruction à la “The Hills” is carbon-copied here for a much less potent effect.

The Weeknd wasn’t always like this. His first mixtape, the visceral House of Balloons, remains one of the most evocative R&B debuts in recent history. But with every release, he has strayed further from what made him magnetic in the first place. Though artistic expansion is usually essential in the maintenance of a career and reputation, it doesn’t count if every release is more disposable than its predecessor. Starboy is the latest in The Weeknd’s streak of increasingly lukewarm offerings, from the ‘80s-revivalist chug of “Secrets” to the Carlos-Santana- meets-T-Pain-sounding “Sidewalks,” featuring a career-low Kendrick Lamar guest verse sandwiched between the laughably over-auto-tuned Tesfaye.

But then there’s “I Feel It Coming,” the standout closing track with Daft Punk on boards. It’s far and away the best song on the album, with delightfully sequenced, pillow-soft synth patterns underpinning a Weeknd that sounds surprisingly cuddly. The song is three minutes of pure audio candy, immediately replayable yet lasting in its appeal. The only problem is that it takes seventeen songs to get there, and once it’s over, that’s it. It’s not enough to save the doomed Starboy, but it numbs the sting, at least.

After his latest release, it seems unreasonable to expect that Tesfaye will make anything that matches the calibre of Trilogy. His commercial potency has skyrocketed as has his household status, which, judging from his recent Zane Lowe interview, appears to have been his goal all along. “I’m a muhfuckin’ Starboy,” he sings on the title track. There’s no arguing with that. Unfortunately, stardom has its costs.