R&B saw a very successful year in 2016. Albums like Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, Solange’s A Seat at the Table, and (of course) Frank Ocean’s Blonde, have given R&B a boost back into mainstream success. After dominating 2015 with the pervasive Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd is looking to continue his successful streak, and further cement his newfound international stardom. With this new record, Abel Tesfaye seems to be struggling to give us a vision of him we’ve not yet seen.
…At least that’s what the titular lead single and accompanying music video would make you think. And yet, Starboy is more of the same from today’s immaterial pop stratosphere. It’s hard to define what Starboy is as an album. Going into it, I thought that it would be a tale of “Starboy,” similar to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. An alter ego could do Tesfaye some serious good; many of his projects in the past have been bogged down by the same lyrical material, the same tired, misogynistic persona. Unfortunately, Starboy suffers from the same facelessness we’ve come to expect from Tesfaye, and unlike his previous LP, the hits don’t outweigh the misses.
That’s not to say the album is bad, because it isn’t. Thankfully, this record has the same professional sheen that characterizes most of The Weeknd’s discography. The production on Starboy is top notch, which comes as no surprise when you take a peek at the album’s contributors. Each track is equipped with a top-notch beat, allowing the instrumentals to shine independently of the lyrics (which are often lacking). “Rockin’,” for example, has a funky pop-house beat reminiscent of Disclosure, while “True Colors” is the same 90’s RnB revival that worked so well for Bruno Mars on his latest release. I’d assume it goes without saying that the production by Daft Punk on “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” is the best on the album.
Speaking of Daft Punk, every feature on the album is great. While there are only five guest appearances over the eighteen tracks (two of them from Daft Punk), they are all from high-profile artists and constitute some of the best parts of the record. Lana Del Rey’s “Stargirl Interlude” is a hypnotic duet that could be the opening theme to a James Bond movie, and “Sidewalks” gives us another head-spinning verse from Kendrick Lamar. Tesfaye even manages to eke out one of the best Future verses in recent memory on “All I Know.” While I wish there were more features considering the length of the album, what we get is fantastic, regardless.
The length, though, is where Starboy loses me. Eighteen tracks spanning almost 70 minutes is a little ridiculous. If this were Tesfaye’s magnum opus, his To Pimp a Butterfly, it might be a different story, but clearly this isn’t the case. The album could easily have four or five less tracks, considering the amount of filler we’re getting here. “Six Feet Under” gets pretty repetitive and annoying, with Future providing some terrible backup vocals, and “Ordinary Life” and “Nothing Without You” are both generic pop songs that didn’t need to be on the album.
Not only that, but the lyrics are some of the worst yet by The Weeknd. “Reminder” is a great track, but its structure (along with “Ordinary Life”) sounds exactly like “Low Life” from Future’s EVOL. Many of the songs come off as formulaic; while the beats might be great, the lyrics aren’t. You could put any pop star on songs like “Secrets” or “Love To Lay” and it wouldn’t make a difference. The album seems rushed, which is something that no album should aspire to; it makes you wonder whether The Weeknd has lowered his artistic standards after acquiring all this fame.
After listening to Starboy, it’s hard to pinpoint what The Weeknd is going to do next. Last year he propelled himself to legendary status, garnering comparisons to Michael Jackson as the next King of Pop. But with Starboy, he seems to have plateaued. Sure, the album is pretty good, but The Weeknd had a big opportunity to assert himself as the best in the business with this release. He could’ve flexed his versatility, and in the process, bridged the gap between commercial and critical success that’s been plaguing him. Instead, we got an album that is forcing The Weeknd to catch up, not lead the race.
Written by Max Borushek