If you follow music like I do, Abel Tesfaye, or The Weeknd, has been a name you have been familiar with for the majority of this decade. In 2011, he made his incredible debut after releasing three free mixtapes throughout the year, later re-releasing them together as Trilogy. These mixtapes caught the attention of fans and others in the industry and his star has risen ever since. Sure his debut album Kiss Land has been forgotten but last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness contained two chart topping singles, and was one of my favorite albums of the year. As an unapologetic fan of The Weeknd, Starboy quickly became one of my most anticipated albums of the year.
As The Weeknd has become more of a mainstream star than an underground sensation, his sound has also sound to keep up with this demand. While his early fans might not be fully on board with this transition, I have been enjoying seeing the places his music has gone, and Starboy is no exception. The title track, which has been produced by Daft Punk, was an excellent choice for a lead single as it was able to show just where The Weeknd wanted to take this project. The electronic production is all over this project, and the 80s inspiration is more than clear.
Lyrically, while I think the overall content has taken a dip in quality with some ridiculous lines, the themes have clearly matured from his last album. “Reminder” is an excellent example of this, sees Abel rejecting the critics saying he has lost his edge. He addresses his Kid’s Choice Award nomination for “Can’t Feel My Face,” saying he will always remind us what he is actually about. The song remains a highlight, despite the line “Got that sweet Asian chick, she go low, mane” being comical.
The title track, which opens this project, also handles similar themes, with The Weeknd coming to terms with the stardom he has now achieved. The production on this track is as great as you would expect from Daft Punk and Abel’s delivery shows his range and vocal abilities have gone nowhere. He is no longer this poor, troubled self-destructive man, but now feels more confident and understands where he is in the world.
Abel is also shows this self-reflective side of himself on “Sidewalks” where he essentially gives us his backstory, growing up without a father, in poverty and eventually becoming the man he is today. The song has a solid beat from A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and a killer guitar riff accompanying it. Of course, Kendrick Lamar’s verse on here is solid, even if it is nothing new for him. Dan Wilson’s vocals, which are nearly identical to those of Sam Smith, also help this track standout as a highlight.
For those who might be disappointed with the lack of songs about The Weeknd’s decline towards destruction, which was a large staple of his last record, do not worry there is still plenty on here. Abel goes into his relapse into his older party lifestyle on “Party Monster,” which is accompanied by production that would fit well in any club The Weeknd would be at.
It is hard to discuss this record without going into the many songs about girls that seem to be entering Abel’s life. On “False Alarm,” he manically sings about a gold digger who is not actually interested in him. The chorus explodes on this track, making it one of The Weeknd’s most unique vocal performances. Similar carelessness towards his partner are seen on “Rockin’” where Abel clearly just is looking for someone to mess around with, without any commitment. This eventually comes back on “A Lonely Night” where Abel, clearly emulating Michael Jackson, is apologetic when a girl thinks what they had was more than just a one night stand.
Outside of this, The Weeknd is clearly still desiring to live a normal life, and his sudden rush to stardom has made that even harder to achieve. A dark moment towards the end of this album, “Ordinary Life,” shows the regret The Weeknd has over his decisions and how he feels he is too far gone for redemption and he would do good if he could. Sure, the David Carradine line might be a bit too much, but song sounds straight off of Beauty Behind the Madness and fits into this album’s narrative very well.
The Weeknd shows his desire to develop more mature relationships all over this record. The retro throwback “Secrets,” is a smooth, upbeat song where Abel wants to know his lover deeper and is troubled by the thought of her possibly cheating on him. This continues onto “True Colors,” a slower-tempo song where Abel wants to know who his lover truly is, in a very accepting way. Having this unfaithful partner likely leads to “Love to Lay,” where Abel seems to be struck with the reality that women also enjoy sleeping around, just like he does. The song has some excellent staying power, with a boisterous beat that has plenty of energy.
The final three songs here really do help to conclude this narrative of Abel being able to open himself up to a more genuine relationship. He starts on “All I Know” exclaiming he cannot keep his girl because he only knows how to be the “bad boy” in a relationship. The song is surprisingly reserved, with the bass really taking over in the production. Then we get a long Future feature which goes over well, he really does work in this context, and ends the track well.
“Die For You” showcases Abel’s falsetto once again, with some fairly straightforward lyrics, but it is the production and electronic filters that makes this song so great. The chorus really does explode here, making the emotion in Abel’s voice even more pronounced.
Daft Punk returns for the closing track, “I Feel It Coming,” which is as upbeat an ending we have ever gotten on a Weeknd album. Sure, Abel feels like more of the guest on this one, but that is more due to Daft Punk’s incredible production that makes this track stand out above the rest. Compared to the end of Beauty Behind the Madness where Abel seems to have rejected love entirely, this song seems more optimistic in his prospects of maintaining something truly stable.
The biggest problems with Starboy really come down to its structure, rather than the individual songs that make it up. Songs like “Stargirl Interlude” where a half-awake Lana Del Rey mumbles some lyrics to us or “Nothing Without You” which offers little overall substance just add to this records overly long 68 minute length. Also the thematic elements, while here, are messily assembled and do not fully arch across this album.
Aside from that, this is still a highly enjoyable listen and fans of The Weeknd will be able to pick out plenty of memorable songs that appeal to them. Abel is still one of my favorite artists dominating the charts and if anything, this album proves he has the right people around him to create great music.
Best Tracks: Starboy, Party Monster, False Alarm, Reminder, Secrets, Sidewalks, A Lonely Night, Ordinary Life, Die For You, I Feel It Coming
Worst Track: Stargirl Interlude