The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’: Album Review

Christina Lee | November 28, 2016 12:00 pm
“All these R&B n—-s be so late,” The Weeknd sings in Starboy (out ). Up until this point, you couldn’t blame him for bragging. In the five years since his drugged-out debut mixtape House Of Balloons, this R&B villain reshaped the genre in his image and became one of pop’s biggest and most distinct voices because of his cold, and often cruel, take on sex. Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and Drake have all called on him to give their songs an added edge. Last year’s film adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey featured his hit “Earned It” not once, but twice. In Zayn Malik‘s solo debut Mind Of Mine, the former One Direction star channeled The Weeknd, among others, to signal that his boy band days were in the distant past.“I’m not going to say any names, but just listen to the radio. Every song is House Of Balloons 2.0,” The Weeknd said in his 2015 Rolling Stone cover story.

Abel Tesfaye used to be anonymous, refusing to grant interviews to keep up the mystique. But now, his latest title track’s hook gives away his true ambitions: “I’m a motherfuckin’ star, boy.” His fourth major-label effort is a victory lap in a Lamborghini Aventador. Even more so than Beauty Behind The Madness and that album’s Max Martin production, this is a shameless, big-budget bid for pop superstardom. And it gets off to such a promising start: The David Bowie-inspired title track has The Weeknd cruising in half-million dollar cars bumping New Edition, while the creeping rhythm by Daft Punk adds menace. “Party Monster,” co-written by and featuring Lana Del Rey, distills all of what he espouses — “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name,” he hiccups — into a single, slinky club track. The bleary-eyed Weeknd of House Of Balloons would never have been able to handle electroclash as he does in “False Alarm.”

These songs are among the tightest that he’s done — uppers in a catalog of downers, with twists and turns through influences as varied as Future and Bad Brains. But this action thriller of an intro is as exciting as Starboy gets. The anti-hero soon disappears and The Weeknd reemerges as a wannabe heartthrob. Long gone are his days covering “Dirty Diana.” Like every other male R&B singer gunning for mainstream success, The Weeknd mines Michael Jackson‘s earliest, disco-informed work for inspiration. While attempting to convey that same innocence, he mostly comes across as lazy. (“Rockin’” aspires to be Justin Timberlake‘s “Rock Your Body” meets Jagged Edge‘s “Let’s Get Married,” but isn’t as infectious as either.) Tesfaye has never been the strongest lyricist, being far more interested in conveying mood, but at least his earlier work had standout mental images: Alize in his cereal, glass table girls. For far too long in the bloated Starboy, he calls us “baby girl” with stock greeting card messages for lyrics.

The Weeknd is wise to resist typecasting. As the recent deluge of DC film adaptations have proven, darkness shouldn’t be mistaken for depth. But if he’s going to step into different territory, he needs to find more ways to make himself known, besides an Adderall mention here or coke reference there. You cannot mistake any one of Starboy‘s featured artists — Daft Punk, Future, Kendrick Lamar or Lana— for anyone else (the latter in particular steals the show in “Stargirl Interlude,” easily the LP’s sexiest moment). Up until this album, the same could be said about The Weeknd.

Remember how he sings “All these R&B n—-s be so late?” He actually finishes that verse in “Reminder” with “Got a sweet Asian chick, she gon’ lo mein.” Drake rapped “Shoutout to Asian girls, let the lights dim sum” five years ago. So on “Sidewalks” when The Weeknd rap-sings “Too many people think they made me / Well, if they really made me, then replace me,” for once that prospect seems possible.

Score: 3/5

– Christina Lee