An awkward entry in The Weeknd’s growing discography.
Starboy is an awkward entry in The Weeknd’s growing discography for reasons that are both within and outside the artist’s control. In a newly invigorated R&B cosmology that includes the glossy political soul of the Knowles’ sisters and John Legend, Frank Ocean’s slow-burn meditations and the genre stitching exuberance of Anderson Paak.; The Weeknd took the questionable, more traditional route of doubling down on the dance-pop of Kiss Land. It’s a weird jump backward, especially following the immense success of his most recent record, Beauty Behind the Madness. That album cemented the artist’s star power in gloomy, tantalizing self-sexualizing and weary cynicism. The Weeknd is starting anew on Star Boy but it’s not the clean slate he’d like us to think it is.
Usually The Weeknd’s orgasmic outputs work well. When he brought what felt like the entire world into the Red Light District with last year’s smash “Earned It,” it was legitimately the best aspect of a shitty movie about BDSM because it actually sounded like a song that you’d play while tying up a significant other (or if you’re more like The Weeknd, a one-off romp). Starboy lacks that certain lived-in, dirty brooding quality that made “Earned It” a hit. Instead, the record is overly packed with 18 songs of familiar territory. “Six Feet Under,” which features the master of gloom, Future, for example, is a subpar rehash of their “Low Life” collaboration right down to its contradictory admonishment and praise of a materialist woman. That joint mirrors another song on the album, “False Alarm” both in terms of theme and paradoxical perspective. While “False Alarm” is more sonically captivating, with a revving guitar and distant high hat shine that matches The Weeknd’s disparate rendition of alt-rock, that we return to this same object with the sole addition of Future’s voice in the mix speaks to the formulaic feeling Starboy induces. We’ve heard this music before and we’ve heard it done better.
Starboy does feature The Weeknd’s penchant nihilism, even if it is drawn back a bit. “Party Monster” is a drab, drugged out masochist drawl with a wavering sub-drum as its canvas. The artist seems to be on a winding path towards a woman who can match his own destructive sexual endurance—“I just need a good girl who gon’ really understand.” Lana Del Ray shows up here just as the bottom of the bassline falls out, leaving her within an airy, cinematic minimalism that she thrives within. She shows up again, to even more success, on the “Stargirl Interlude,” which sees the two artists playing off their musical personas with a palpable energy that escapes the album altogether. It reappears on the Daft Punk produced first and final tracks, “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” respectively. But it’s felt most notably, when he raps on “Reminder,” apparently tee’d off that fans may have forgotten him that he’s still singing about a face-numbing bag of blow.
However, the album counters that argument on the whole; as it does employ some traditional and new wave pop modalities that seem to be more popular to a younger crowd. Sometimes it works, like on “Secrets” which features a boppin’ sub-bass and his seldom heard lower cords. But other times, the bright poppy stuff is a sonic manifestation of the square peg in a round hole. There’s nothing wrong with his oscillation from desiring one-night stands (a through line that connects Trilogy to about half of the records here) to monogamy and back again, but when it’s coupled with some struggle lines like those found in “Rockin’” (“You don’t have to waste your time with me/ You don’t have to waste your energy/ We can just be rockin’”) the pop gleam is blinding and tepid. “A Lonely Night” and “Die For You” are the best of both worlds here—and perhaps, not coincidentally, they are the album’s most personal cuts. The former fuses a funky bass line spine with a melodic patience that most artists simply don’t employ, highlighted by some pretty impressive MJ-inspired vocalizations. The latter is a tender, R-Kelly-esque break up song in which distance and time are the main culprits rather than infidelity.
The Weeknd is the first artist under Drake’s OVO label and he’s also the first artist to really distance himself from the in-house sound. But the move to make more ostensibly pop music is going to be a difficult pill to swallow for his fans who’ve been with him since the start. Of course, every fan base has to adapt to the changes an artist undergoes (no artist necessarily wants to stay in the same place) but Starboy may be too out there for his fans to thoroughly enjoy. To be sure, The Weeknd’s going to be just fine—the album peaked at number two on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart—but the shifts here might, naturally, result in some fans losing interest in his future work. R&B, in a stunning reversal from its middling 2000s, is chock full of diverging artists experimenting with genre, production, and presentation; but, and perhaps in an even stranger shift, Starboy moves closer to the dying center of dance-pop, digging for something new in a field of bones.