This decade has certainly had no shortage of big music moments. The lead up to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Beyoncé dropping two surprise albums and pretty much anything Radiohead did leading up to their newest release. But for me the biggest music moment of this past decade didn’t come from any established name but a then unknown Toronto R&B artist.
In 2011 nothing was known about The Weeknd other than a few interesting black and white music videos and collection of moody tracks uploaded to YouTube. But over the course of that year The Weeknd released three of the best mixtapes that have ever graced the genre. Each managed to capture a general feeling of melancholy and inner pain masked with the use of any psychedelic the singer could get their hands on. These releases were mysterious in a way that seemed impossible in the internet age, and for a time it really seemed like it would remain that way.
Flash forward five years and The Weeknd, also known as Abél Tesfaye, is one of the biggest names in music. Now signed to Republic and with two number one singles behind him The Weeknd is finishing another trilogy of albums with this years Starboy, an album that finds Abél at a crossroads with his past and himself.
Starboy more so than his previous two big label releases aimed to be something of a breakaway from the usual formula Abél had crafted for himself. Where his first two releases felt more poppy and watered down than his mixtapes, Starboy attempts to correct the course. And for a moment it really seems like it could work.
The lead single, ‘Starboy’, that starts the album proper, is one of the best tracks in the Weeknd’s discography. It’s a perfect mix of the more commercial elements of his past work with the darker edge of his mixtape work. This is in no small part due to the work of Daft Punk who feature on the track, as well as the album’s terrific closer ‘I Feel It Coming’. It’s clear that their influence extends beyond these two tracks as the rest of Starboy attempts to capture the 80’s nostalgia the duo is known for. But where Daft Punk manage to find heart in their 80’s worship, The Weeknd’s version is more hallow.
In fact the difference in execution is felt immediately after ‘Starboy’ with the forgettable ‘Party Monster’ which forgoes any interesting production and lyricism to instead retreat to the most generic sounding synth beat. Lyrically the song also takes a dive from the opening track, reverting to yet another Weeknd track where women and drugs are flowing a plenty with Abél enjoying both in excess.
Sadly the rest of the album is closer to songs like ‘Party Monster’ as each become indistinguishable from one another. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Abél kept the same tight nine to ten song track listing he usually worked with, but instead he decided to make this a eighteen song slog of an album that offers no relief.
The few experiments on the album are mostly hit and miss with more in the latter category. Second single ‘False Alarm’ answers the question “do we need a Weekend song where Abél screams?” with a resounding no, and ‘True Colors’ is a laughable attempt to inject some real emotion into the album that reads false all the way though.
There is one bright spot though, the track ‘Secrets’ which was originally planned to be a country song is instead transformed into a slow burning R&B jam. The Weeknd even plays with his usual falsetto on the song, singing in a deeper style than we might be use to. It’s a good change of pace and one wishes that The Weeknd took similar risks to diversify the rest of the album.
But as it stands Starboy is a bloated release from an artist who should know better by now. Hopefully with this new trilogy coming to an end The Weekend can find a new path to go down, because if he can’t it’s easy to see how this Starboy could burn out.
Starboy is out now via XO and Republic Records.