In late 2012, The Weeknd (Abél Tesfaye) released ‘The Trilogy’, a compilation project that blended his initial three mixtapes – ‘House Of Balloons’, ‘Echoes Of Silence’ and ‘Thursday’ – into a two-and-a-half hour odyssey characterised by its desperate melancholia and wraith-like vocal lines. Abel took R&B, shook her up, put her in knee-high leather boots and had her doing lines of coke the size of Santa’s eyebrows in a dimly lit room. He – without wanting to sound too cliché – changed the game.
Fast-forward to 2015 – Abel releases his sophomore LP, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, trading in the dark minimalism of his previous works for a kind of symphonic maximalism that mirrored his newfound stardom. ‘BBTM’ was essentially a victory lap, and ultimately – his slingshot into the stratosphere: The hits ‘Earned It’, ‘The Hills’ and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ afforded Abel with a mainstream appeal to rival his former label-mate, Drake, without having to sacrifice his favoured vocal content too heavily (namely: coke and sex).
This, you might think, is quite odd, and apparently – so does The Weeknd and he addresses it fairly promptly on ‘Starboy’. “I just won a new award for a kid’s show / Talkin’ bout a face numbing off a bag of blow”, he points out wryly on ‘Reminder’. It’s difficult to discern whether he finds this amusing or frustrating, however, one thing is clear: regardless of his vocal content, Abel has the Billboard Midas touch – and ‘Starboy’ only solidifies this notion further.
Much of the album builds on the four-on-the-floor pop-house blueprint laid out by ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, yet frames such tracks in sonics pioneered by his pop predecessors, namely – Michael Jackson, Prince, The Romantics and the album’s opening and closing collaborator, Daft Punk. And when these tracks fly – they soar.
‘Secrets’, which boasts samples from Tears For Fears’ ‘Pale Shelter’ and The Romantics’ ‘Talking In Your Sleep’, is a beautiful two-step nostalgia bomb; the stuttering synths and Abel’s husky vocals leave you half-expecting Gary Numan to come in for a duet. Similarly, the Daft Punk assisted ‘I Feel It Coming’ serves as the perfect tribute to the King of Pop, and will most likely end up being his biggest hit to date. Finally, there is ‘A Lonely Night’, another groovy 80’s throwback with a striking hook that flits seamlessly between melodic and dissonant. What really shines through with these tracks, however, is the following: despite their chart-topping power, the motivation for them seems to be genuinely artistic rather than financial; the hooks and melodies sound completely organic. It is these moments on ‘Starboy’ when Abel appears to have successfully completed the transformation from R&B’s Dark Lord, to fully fledged popstar.
However, elsewhere on ‘Starboy’, that transformation doesn’t seem quite as polished. ‘Rockin’, yet another pop-house offering, has no apparent agenda over and above radio spins. It’s got that sort of zappy, EDM bassline likely to be heard at a vanilla freshers’ night, and seems somewhat superfluous considering that the album clocks in at a slog-like sixty-eight minutes. Moreover, ‘Party Monster’ – or as I like to call it: ‘Low Life 2.0’ sans Future – merely sounds like a chart-reaching iteration of his earlier, darker tracks.
Despite its shortcomings, of which there aren’t too many, ‘Starboy’ reaches its audible peaks when Abel and executive producer of ‘The Trilogy’, Doc Mckinney, reunite to forge their unique brand of R&B. To return to my previous metaphor: on ‘True Colors’ and ‘Die For You’, the knee-high boots are traded in for a white dress and the coke for a glass of wine – forming a pair of straight baby-making tracks stripped of all the morally grey oddness usually associated with Abel’s odes to the opposite sex. The aforementioned track, ‘Reminder’, on the other hand, is a dark, minimal banger that nods firmly to their work on ‘The Trilogy’. A twisted piano loop is bolstered with fizzing hi-hats and thin snares, while The Weeknd vents about his recent accolade: “God damn bitch I am not a Teen Choice!” (‘Rockin’ might suggest otherwise).
The best track of the bunch, however, has to be the Kendrick Lamar assisted ‘Sidewalks’. Screeching flecks of electric guitar bounce playfully off big drum breaks, providing The Weeknd with a platform for some auto-tuned introspection: “I ran out of tears when I was eighteen / So nobody made me but the main streets”. These lines might be throwing shade at Jeremy Rose (producer of tracks like ‘What You Need’ from ‘House Of Balloons’), who claims to have had a big hand in carving out Abel’s sound in the early days. Despite The Weeknd’s triumphant verse, though, K. Dot – who never fails to kill a guest verse – matches the energy with ease. It’s funny – both of these artists, although boasting entirely different sounds, are known for stealing the show on features. It seems apt, then, that K. Dot shows up on ‘Sidewalks’ – generating a non-jostling artistic equilibrium.
‘Starboy’, then, does not take too many artistic risks – however, from Abel’s perspective, this was probably a solid move: The Weeknd’s fan base is gargantuan, and fittingly, there are songs to please each and every member.