In 2011, if you told someone that by 2016, The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) would be one of the biggest popstars in the world, it’s fairly unlikely they’d believe you. His first three breakout mixtapes (collectively known as Trilogy) were dark, brooding affairs, melding alt-R&B sounds with lyrics about depressed hedonism and sex where consent was questionable at best (Initiation is still a thoroughly disturbing song). Last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness was an obvious play for pop-stardom, but its biggest single was The Hills, which is firmly in the classic Weeknd vein. He changed to adapt to popular tastes, but it also seems that popular tastes have adapted to change him. As such, it’s impressive that he hasn’t chosen to rest on his laurels, and instead of keeping his signature sound the same, is pressing forward into new territory with the excellent Starboy.
By now, most music fans have likely heard the album’s title track and lead single, and it elegantly sets the tone for what’s to come. Melding The Weeknd’s dark R&B with Daft Punk’s nu-disco sound, the track elegantly rides the fine line between dance and hip-hop, the two genres Starboy oscillates between. There’s actually a very impressive amount of variety on display in the album, from the horror-movie hip-hop of Party Monster to the sun-drenched psychedelia of Secrets. There’s a lot going on, and it could easily fall apart, but the album actually holds together very well. The cover hints at it, but Abel has embraced his more schlocky, cartoonish qualities, which suit his style far better than the artsy veneer he’s always gone for. The consistent tonal aesthetic manages to help the stylistic variety stay coherent, and it feels like a much more complete album than the messy Beauty Behind the Madness.
Lyrically, the album explores a lot of the same territory as previous records, but with more of an emphasis on genuine romance, and a less-serious approach to debauchery. On Reminder, Abel doubles down on his image, but with amusing callouts like “I just won a new award for a kids show / talking ‘bout a face numbing off a bag of blow” (referencing Can’t Feel My Face winning a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award), and silly gags like “got that Hannibal / silence of the Lambo”. Other tracks see him exploring previously untouched themes of monogamy and intimacy, like True Colors, in which he implores a new lover to reveal her deepest secrets to him. It gives the feeling that Abel is genuinely trying to evolve as an artist, even if it’s a fairly slow process.
The album’s biggest flaw is its length. There isn’t really a weak track on the record, and there’s enough variety that each song feels fresh, but at 68 minutes, the album really starts to drag in its final stretch. The final few songs are all solid (I Feel it Coming, the Daft Punk-featuring closer is actually a real standout), but there’s an undeniable feeling of fatigue that comes along by around the 14th track (there’s 18 in total). Even so, Starboy is never boring, just tiring, but perhaps without the depth to justify it. However, depth is not something that people really look for in The Weeknd. Instead they look for fun, debauched R&B jams, and those are here in ample supply.