Review | The Weeknd goes interstellar and insular on Starboy

The WeekndStarboy -Headstuff.org

Starboy

[Universal]

At the beginning of Starboy, Abel Tesfaye sings, “I’m tryin’ to put you in the worst mood.” Luckily for all of us, he fails at this goal spectacularly, because what follows ends up being one of the most enjoyable, realised projects he’s ever attached himself to.

The Weeknd has managed to create his best effort yet in Starboy, a colossal compilation of all he is capable of within the thematic confines of the project, his obsessions with dark romance and hollow lifestyles peaking and exploding outward, no edge lost, but plenty of sheen gained. Taking cues from all of his 80’s-era loves with absolutely no shame, diving into retro styles with obvious glee and giving those classic sounds fresh coats of paint, Starboy sets out to create a perfect Weeknd experience, and it succeeds wonderfully.

He creates an extremely cinematic, retro record that doesn’t just flirt with it, and doesn’t hold back, but instead goes all-in on his indulgences, every element turned up to 11 before the knob gets snapped off, letting it blast out as whatever it wants to be, and what it wants to be is nothing short of amazing. It’s electric; it’s warm; it’s ecstatic; it’s as lost in the dark, smoke-filled dance clubs his music flourishes in as it’s ever been; it’s rampantly debauched and completely starry-eyed, in love with itself, as cool as anything Abel has released and just as smooth. Its first half is as detached and miserable as he’s ever been, and it ends up as lovely as he’s ever sounded.

He’s earned a large reputation for taking his unique style of seductive darkness and blasting it into the pop stratosphere at lightning-speed, going from internet anonymity to an arena-filling superstar within as short a window as anybody has ever managed, and Starboy shows a blend of those two sides that has been perfected, turned into something that’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the commercial and catchy hooks swirling with the subversive and hardcore lyrics into a memorable, instantly-hooking and likely-lasting record.

His previous album, Beauty Behind the Madness, cemented him as a cultural icon, but many long-time fans of his darker, more mood-centric and flow-oriented releases like Trilogy found themselves missing something – its singles were good, if not amazing; even if ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ really is as strong as its performance would suggest, and ‘The Hills’ delivers in spades, continuing to hold up today – but as an album experience, it was messy; it was fragmented; it was fractured. Maybe that fit the album cover better than anything else could have – a work that features a shattered portrait of Tesfaye – but even if it conceptually satisfied an artistic pairing, it still didn’t make for a compelling full-listen. It seemed to fall victim to the style many (if not most) albums now fall to – listen once to find what you like, fit them into your playlists and move on.

Starboy more than makes up for the lack of cohesiveness that … Madness failed to provide, proving he hasn’t collapsed beneath the weight of success, but has instead come out from under it stronger than ever. Opening with lead single and title track ‘Starboy’, it immediately dips the listener into a deep, moody space before yanking them into a crowded room with the several chart-toppers-in-the-making that follow, climaxing with the incredible early highpoint ‘Rockin’, a song which demonstrates the “completeness” of this album a good as any – the transition from it to ‘Secrets’ afterward is as smooth as any imaginable, a perfect segue that makes you forget a new song has started, not because of how similar they sound, but because of how expertly they were sequenced.

‘Secrets’ is simply spectacular, too, fading in and dumping the listener into the middle of a dreamy, synth-soaring, four-and-a-half-minute love letter to the ’80s styles Tesfaye adores, taking The Romantics’ mega-hit ‘Secrets That You Keep’ and using its lyrics to zonk out to the beautiful, ocean-deep-sounding, hallucinatory space the song creates, a sonic wonderland of a track that allows Abel to showcase his vocal range at such a level that it is bound to make you jealous, even if your biggest audience is made up of just yourself in the shower. He hits baritone notes that are chocolatey, rich and overwhelming; he slam-dunks the falsetto beauty he’s become famous for. ‘Secrets’ is, if nothing else, amazing, and an immediate standout. On its own, it’s phenomenal; paired up with ‘Rockin’ it’s a creative peak, firing up an energy little pop has managed to all year.

‘True Colors’ marks the obligatory ballad track, and probably the worst of the lot – it’s still good, but it’s a good song surrounded by great ones, slowing the pace, and maybe it’s a necessary slowdown, making it clear that Starboy won’t just be an hour-plus of the energy you’ve been feeling so far, but it seems better-suited as an encore opener for the inevitable giant tour he’ll be going on to support the record than it does as the song to follow up ‘Secrets’. It scratches the R&B itch fans might be feeling, and it does continue to prove just how lush the album’s production is, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle of all that’s going on around it. It doesn’t bog the album down, but it does seem like something that hasn’t been done justice – it might be fantastic, heard on its own, but within Starboy’s overall flow, it loses something.

Starboy begins with a sleek, murderous song that basks in materialism, corruption of faith, commercial excess and continues the themes well toward the midpoint, bragging about winning Teen Choice Awards for songs about cocaine abuse, going through women like the interchangeable objects his generally-underrated album Kiss Land suggested them to be, only for the record to find itself landing someplace incredibly different from where it blasted off (and it really does blast off; enough cannot be said about how immediately gripping, charged and electric this record is; it latches on fast and, despite how introspective and honest it becomes, never lets go).

The beautiful, spacey, too-short interlude ‘Stargirl’ which finds Abel singing once again with Lana Del Rey, furthers the more vulnerable, reflective side that the album proceeds to sift through, cut off too-soon by ‘Sidewalks’, a much-hyped collaboration between Abel and Kendrick Lamar. It delivers – Abel dips a bit back into his typical bravado, while still waxing poetically about the path that life makes everyone walk, never really arriving at a destination, just another transition point, guitars that are bound to remind Radiohead fans of the outro to ‘Identikit’ scratch their way in, and Lamar provides a verse that is short but effective in its brevity, satisfying fans of his bars without taking the spotlight away from the overall project at work and turning it into a collab-centric piece.

Starboy seems intent on culminating and refining Abel’s longest-running obsessions – sexuality, depravity, vapid lust and depression, inner turmoil and longing for something more in a universe that seems if not malignant then, at least, indifferent towards fostering depth – and he refuses to allow those intentions to be forgotten, even when moments that could rightfully steal the show arise. He’s always seemed to want opposing things – to be darkly underground and to be incredibly renowned; to be the cool, player bad boy and to be the heartbroken, poetry-singing artist; to be the kind of person no one knows by name and the kind of person whose face everyone can recognise. Different albums have always ended up further in one of these spaces than the other, but Starboy finds a near-perfect combination of them all.

Many fans had worried that his meteoric success streak would ruin much of what made them hooked to begin with, but he manages to make it work. Maybe some of the mystique has worn off, but rather than attempt to cling to it, Abel uses this loss of anonymity to give us a deeper look into his mindset, the artwork fitting just as well as the cover for … Madness did, with Abel presented in expensive, status-suggesting clothing, bathed in Nicolas Winding Refn / Michael Mann-style neon light, clutching his head, slouched over, overwhelmed and anxious, a cross around his neck looking less like a religious proclamation and more like a lead weight that is pulling him down with guilt and responsibility. Success making life harder isn’t anything new in music, but rather than feeling rote, here it feels focused, fresh and fascinating, cutting when it wants to be and moving when necessary, always somehow exciting and thrilling in between.

If Starboy begins with burning down his past images, as its music video might suggest, using up what little is left in the tank on the mysterious side to lift off into space, then it ends with him landing securely in a very human place, somewhere where the drugs that numb your face are wearing off, where the booze blended with Adderall has started to work its way out of your system, where the string of one-night stands comes to an end and you find yourself wanting to stay a little longer, know someone a little better. It shows a growth that’s natural, sincere and not played up for dramatic effect – he doesn’t find himself transformed like a butterfly, and it isn’t something that makes him unrecognisable. The old traits, the old vices and the old temptations are all still there by the time the final songs kick in, but they are seen through more adult eyes.

‘Six Feet Under’ is the ‘True Colors’ of the back half, a song that’s perfectly alright, but surrounded by ones that are all fantastic. It seems less like a piece built for the album, one that is otherwise so conceptually tight, and instead like a single or feature track that just never found its way out of the studio until album release time came along. It doesn’t help that an early leaked version sounded far better, but it still works – it just isn’t the standout that other tracks on Starboy are; it may end up being a grower, one that opens up on later listens, but with so many songs on this record that immediately stand out, it’s hard to get hung up on this one.

‘Love To Lay’, meanwhile, provides a fantastic role reversal from the normal narrative of his music – rather than being the one to fuck-and-go, he finds himself on the receiving end of a woman who is emotionally unavailable, simply not there, discovering, quite unhappily, that he is easily cast away and replaced, one of many in her life and nothing more, nothing special. It’s as emasculating for him as it is empowering for the unnamed woman, the tug and pull for power in male/female relationships that The Weeknd’s discography has always chronicled getting yanked hard in the female direction.

For someone who seems so obsessed with the idea of love, the characters found in his songs rarely seem to know how to find it, and even fewer know how to keep it, and the characters at the centre of ‘Love To Lay’ are no exceptions, regardless of gender, and it’s that consistency in abandonment, use and manipulation that has allowed Tesfaye’s lyrics to avoid being seen as outwardly misogynistic – everyone is getting used; everyone is getting consumed; everyone is getting discarded. Maybe the boys do more of the damage within his discography, pound for pound, but considering the perspective that it’s coming from, it only makes sense.

Regardless of what thematic additions ‘Love To Lay’ provides, it’s also just a killer song, danceable as anything he’s produced, percussion slapping hard, smacking across the face and driven by incredible, distortion-breeding synths. For all it adds to his overall storytelling and commentary on modern relationships, it’s unabashedly pop, Michael Jackson-influenced and immediately hooking in its charms, enduring in its structure and deceptive simplicity. If ‘Rockin’ combined with ‘Secrets’ is a peak moment of Starboy’s first half, ‘Love To Lay’ is the most immediate standout of the second. It’s an achievement to listen to, and it drives the thematic journey forward to the max, full-speed into a stretch of songs that show his romanticism while beginning to try and shake off the cynicism he has long-worn around the subject.

‘A Lonely Night’ keeps the funk-evoking, hard-hitting dance vibes going, reminiscent at points of Controversy-era Prince and dipping his toes back into his use of women for personal comfort with little regard to their feelings, yet illustrating a guilt that’s more prominent than usual. His vocals have never been smoother than they are here, fluid and almost too-perfect. A sense of turmoil grows, and ‘Attention’ offers a further examination of the ways in which success has challenged his relationships and sense of self, his emotional unavailability crippling something that could have been more than it likely is going to be.

‘Ordinary Life’ catalogues his infamous debauchery, but seems uncomfortable with it – “Heaven knows that I’ve been told … if I could, I’d trade it all.” It’s another classic subject for a pop song, expressing guilt over his excess alongside a sense of numbness and immutability in his transgressions, believing himself to be beyond redemption, and if any of these subjects seem cliché, it’s worth keeping in mind that Abel seems to knowingly bask in it.

He builds a retro-themed, trope-loving soundscape that ends up seeming more self-aware and charming than it does unoriginal or lacking in ideas. It’s highly-cinematic, fulfilling the flirtations with religious iconography found in the ‘Starboy’ video along with the album’s artwork, a phenomenal song that feels out Abel’s deeper end of his vocal range, the bass rattling suitably along with it.

‘Nothing Without You’ echoes lyrics sang by Kanye West on ‘FML’, a song that Abel featured on beautifully earlier in the year, diving into similar territory of relationship struggles and anxieties. ‘All I Know’ furthers his inner romantic being bogged down by reality, with Future offering a verse that doesn’t upstage Kendrick’s ‘Sidewalks’ verse, but doesn’t seem to be trying to, working in its own way, a welcomed longer track that uses the length to its advantage. While some songs here feel far too short, ‘All I Know’ seems intent on avoiding that issue, blending all of its elements, seeming cosmic, expansive and exploratory.

‘Die For You’ ends up offering some of his most potent and moving lyrics yet, confessing extremely intimate relationship turmoil, personal inadequacy and his issues to accept a good thing when he sees it, doubling down on his emotions and yet still struggling. It is easily the emotional climax of the record, the one where he finds himself less the distant, icy, P1-driving Starboy of the opening track and more the raw human behind that mask of detachment.

It’s one of the last songs made for the album, not long after the relationship it is likely about dissolved, and it’s all-the-more potent for it – his vocals on it have to be heard to be believed. And even if it doesn’t work out, it suggests a desire for sincerity, sweetness and functionality that almost none of his more-famous work before has ever seemed inclined towards. Maybe he still doesn’t believe in something tangible, but he’s wanting to, and that’s the first step. It cements the inner growth the protagonist of the album has taken, and allows for the final song on the record, one that ends up feeling like the music that plays as the credits roll after the film has drawn to a close, a final creative brushstroke to sign the near-perfect painting Tesfaye has just finished crafting.

Starboy, despite beginning so broodingly and developing so feverishly, with a song like ‘False Alarm’ blasting forward at a manic-pace, only to sputter out into a haunting, scratchy keyboard, ends in one of the warmest places The Weeknd has ever been, the Daft Punk-featuring ‘I Feel It Coming’ offering more than just a snicker-worthy pun as a title, ending up highly-reminiscent of Daft Punk’s 2013 Random Access Memories, bringing to the table a soulful, warm, astoundingly positive cut that fades out too soon and doesn’t take it far enough. The spaceship ride comes to an end, whether you want it to or not – and you likely won’t; it’s just an incredible album. It goes up, and it comes down, and the trip in either direction is a thrill. Come for the seductive serial killer chic and stay for the heart-on-its-sleeve confessions; whichever side of The Weeknd drew you in, it’s here, and whichever you may have struggled to appreciate, it’s ready to win you over.

This is, bar-none, the most complete presentation of what The Weeknd is, more cohesive than … Madness, more accessible than Trilogy, more sharply-produced than Kiss Land. His voice has never sounded better, and it has never covered more ground, his high notes plentiful and his deeper, soulful lows more common. Despite being something that is almost guaranteed to be a commercial powerhouse, Starboy sounds less like a financially-motivated, label-concocted project and more like something Abel just wanted to make, something he enjoyed creating and was eager to release.

This is a sincere, compelling and earnest album, without a doubt one of the best of 2016. Tesfaye’s raw talent has been refined with a killer precision, given a professional sheen that doesn’t knock off the sharp edges, but instead pronounces them, highlighting all of the elements that have made him so great all along and offering his most defining effort yet in the form of a glossy, neon art piece that demands your attention.

The dark seductiveness, the American Psycho stylings, the drug-fueled sensuality, the morning-after guilt, the lavish loneliness, the sharp electronic edge that takes his soulful voice and dips it in ice water – it’s all there, packed in tight, an album that, despite being over an hour long, doesn’t seem overstuffed. It’s an incredible soundtrack to temptation, sang by somebody who knows better, but can’t help but be pulled back in, struggling to find meaning in things that are purposefully meaningless, trying to sort out an identity when they’ve developed a persona bigger than any one person could possibly live up to.

It’s a lush package of anxiety, extravagance and sexuality, as explosive and addictive as the drugs he sings about and twice as intoxicating. It’s a masterful synthesis of his pop skills breeding with his pitch-black style, dancing around while covered in blood to ‘I Feel It Coming’ strangling himself and taking on a new identity in ‘Starboy’, coming out of it all more focused and talented than he has ever been as an artist. Starboy is a manically-dark, gleeful record, and ends up amounting to a resounding success from one of the most promising talents in the industry.

NINE / TEN

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