Abel Tesfaye has developed quite the persona since 2012’s Trilogy. His smooth, high voice now rings out tales of sex and drug use, enveloping the explicit material in a fog of irresistible soul and Tesfaye has grown to great acclaim since that quiet 2012 release. He’s now warmly welcomed as The Weeknd on radio stations, the main stages of music festivals and in front of a sea of celebrities at events like the Grammys. The Weeknd’s latest work, the mammoth 18-track Starboy, confronts his current status — standing at the crossroads of purposeful musicality and pop-stardom.
Starboy opens with its lead single and title track, “Starboy,” playing right into the hands of eager disc jockeys across the country. Following in the footsteps of “Can’t Feel My Face,” the track draws on Daft Punk’s funk and relies on formulaic pop repetition and seemingly nonsensical lyrics. Though not The Weeknd’s most profound effort, “Starboy” gets the record off to a strong start.
The album goes on to deliver some of the same expected party tracks. “Rockin” is a solid track that prods listeners to, well, rock. It’s bouncy and addictive — the kind of song that will likely be played to a pulp on the radio in a few months time. The aptly named “Party Monster” brings to mind images of a blue-lit nightclub full of dancing bodies as the chorus repeats, “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name.”
Pleasure seeking aside, there are a few tracks that, surprisingly, give listeners a glimpse into The Weeknd’s life when he’s not bedding women or getting high. In what feels like flashes of consciousness, the lyrics comment on The Weeknd’s upbringing, his previous work and today’s current celebrity climate. In “Reminder,” he takes a dig at the commodification and celebrity of his own work, singing “I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ‘bout a face numbing off a bag of blow.” The track also takes swaggering hits at other R&B-ers trying and failing to mimic his Trilogy sound.
The Weeknd goes on to address his upbringing and its stark contrast to the lavish life he now leads. On “Sidewalks,” he alludes to hardships in his youth and his struggle to make something of himself. Although still functioning on the surface level, the Kendrick Lamar feature on “Sidewalks” makes it one of Starboy’s most socially aware tracks. Similarly, “Six Feet Under” deals with the pressures of consumerism and attempts to shed light on the problems that can come with material obsession. Unfortunately, the track goes about doing so in a way that revolves around the objectification of female bodies.
On “Ordinary Life” The Weeknd acknowledges the absurdity of his lifestyle outright. The chorus consists only of a repeated, “This ain’t ordinary life.” He knows that his music and the life it depicts act as an outlet, a fantasy for those who tune in. He even goes as far as to insinuate that his life will end early and he will find himself in Hell. But The Weeknd’s reminder that his existence isn’t perfect or readily attainable is still packaged in a romanticized, intoxicating track — he’s not trying too hard to turn anyone away.
The record is bookended by Daft Punk features, wrapping with “I Feel It Coming.” The track is soft and kind in comparison to The Weeknd’s usual depictions of physical intimacy. There is no rush or urgency in his voice, no crude anatomical euphemisms. It shows the growth of The Weeknd as an artist and, arguably, as a man since Trilogy hit the Internet four years ago.
Starboy’s range — musically, lyrically and vocally — is a clear attempt by The Weeknd to shake free from his increasingly pop-heavy mold. Even the length of the album itself may be taken as an affront on pop convention. But The Weeknd is not making any overt statements; the tracks largely follow the pop formula and the album runs smoothly from start to finish. Though there are clear markers of attempted dissonance, Starboy is ultimately a well-produced, radio-friendly record that will please current fans and draw in even more.