The Weeknd Shines Brightly on ‘Starboy’
By the time House of Balloons reached its fifth anniversary last winter, it was clear The Weeknd had come a long way from the shadowy crevices of Toronto’s bursting underground. After his song "Earned It" landed on one of 2015’s biggest movie soundtracks, Fifty Shades of Grey, and he carved his drug-addled image into the pop landscape with Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd had staked his claim as R&B’s next superstar.
Then, this past fall, he up and killed himself -- at least, in the video for his new album’s title track, “Starboy.” The move was a sign of change. Fans first had an inkling of the singer’s impending sonic transition this past summer when it was revealed that he’d been in the lab with French electronic duo Daft Punk. Once “Starboy” officially debuted back in September, the first glimpse at The Weeknd’s future was realized. Two months later, his newest album, Starboy, arrives in the form of a sleeker-sounding, more Auto-Tune-heavy version of his previous projects -- and if you’re a fan of The Weeknd, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Paranoia and the gilded perils of lavish living and reluctant love permeate Starboy, a luminous constellation of nu-disco, R&B, electro-pop and, of course, The Weeknd’s expertly wielded tenor. In addition to Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar, Future and Lana Del Rey add their talents to the project. The content of his new album makes it clear that -- crossover success and new haircut aside -- Starboy is still very much The Weeknd, and “Reminder” is a PSA for fans and critics who would’ve thought otherwise.
Floating over bouncy drums and faint keys, Weeknd reminds folks that even though he won an award for a kid's show, he still took home the trophy by detailing his drug use ("I just won a new award for a kid's show/Talkin' 'bout a face numbing off a bag of blow/I'm like goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice") on "Reminder." He now cruises over the 808s-laced production of Daft Punk, but he’s still got a penchant for petty, two-line flexes that would make Gucci Mane proud.
While the nihilistic, vice-loving Weeknd still lives on in Starboy, he does appear more interested in exploring genuine tenderness than he did at any point in his other projects. The singer still wants a girl “that will really understand” his addiction to hollow one-night stands, but he also wants his main chick to face him with naked honesty (“Party Monster,” “True Colors"). Throughout the album, Weeknd vacillates between emotionally unavailable rock star (“Attention”), womanizer (“A Lonely Night”) and repentant player (“All I Know”).
Describing Weeknd’s lyrical content on paper gives him the appearance of someone who’s all over the place, but considering the codeine-drenched lifestyle he describes on "Ordinary Life," that erratic mindset creates its own sort of thematic consistency. Starboy tracks five through seven find Weeknd swerving through the aforementioned dimensions of intimacy -- from strictly physical to soul-baring love. “Rockin'” features him gleefully shooting down monogamy in favor of drug-fueled nights and boundless sex. On “Secrets,” he transitions into a more vulnerable space as he croons on about sensing his girlfriend’s infidelity. Next, he probes for his lover's secrets over the Swish, Benny Blanco, Jake One and Cashmere Cat-produced “True Colors."
While atmosphere undoubtedly played a major role in The Weeknd's rise to stardom, it's his generational singing voice that's always served as a main attraction, and on Starboy, his delicately powerful vocals are as emotive as ever. The repentant player emits empathy convincingly as the tender sound of his voice melts into the sentimental keys of "True Colors," where he pleads for his lover's honesty before truly consummating their relationship. On "I Feel It Coming," The Weeknd channels Off the Wall era Michael Jackson, reassuring a woman "who's scared of love" with the sweetness of his reedy vocals and a Daft Punk instrumental vaguely reminiscent of Toto’s “Africa.”
The loose interconnectivity of genres the singer chooses to tackle tie together Starboy nicely. Though “Secrets” and “Rockin'” represent different sorts of music, each sport upbeat tracks that come close to connecting in vibe, even it they're separated by time. "Rockin'" features a rave-ready instrumental you could picture hearing at Minus Zero, and the disco-infused "Secrets" is so reminiscent of the 1980s you can see Al Pacino shooting up a nightclub with it playing in the background. The connection doesn't stop at genres either. "Love to Lay" features him reflecting on the emptiness of being left in bed alone, while "Lonely Night" finds him apologizing for doing the same thing to another woman. In many ways, “All I Know” is the logical sequel to “True Colors,” as it’s pretty much The Weeknd’s final stand against his love-crushing demons.
Speaking of “All I Know,” Ben Billions and Cashmere Cat did some serious work on the haunting instrumental, which features distorted Future vocals that sound like they’re a message from the great trap beyond. For his part, The Weeknd sings with palpable urgency, stretching his vocals as he comes to grips with his past as a womanizer and tries to convince his lover to do the same.
While Starboy doesn’t have a track that immediately matches the pop thrill of an “I Can't Feel My Face” or a forbidden love ballad as viscerally powerful as “Wicked Games,” it’s a musically diverse, but cohesive collection of songs that will knock anywhere -- from the club to the bedroom. The Weeknd is a self-described pop star, and proves his worth on Starboy, an album with plenty to love.
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