Review Summary: Misogyny has never sounded so manufactured.
I can admire The Weeknd's attempts to be an enigma even if it seems like he's not really trying. Take his work with Daft Punk on the title-track of Starboy
: although the synths and drum machines can easily be identified, Abel Tesfaye's lyrics portray a fairly standard Svengali archetype. But he does it in such a way only he can, blurring syllables and phrases together, rewarding deeper observation and studious concentration. Generally speaking though, Starboy
is pleasant but unnecessary: spread thin across 18 tracks, it's the same sort of trap balladry that, though consistent in its middling nature, constantly reinvents how bland the notion of experimenting can be. Fourteen months after Beauty Behind the Madness
, it's an artifact that proves, if anything, that Tesfaye has learnt absolutely nothing.
The implication of this is that Starboy
is completely uninspired and consistently boring, and that's not an entirely fair conclusion to draw. Earlier tracks on the album, like "Rockin'" and "Secrets," entertain the influence of funk and moody synthpop, respectively. At other moments, he takes on boom bap ("Sidewalks") and nu-disco ("I Feel it Coming"), rarely settling but always succeeding. And when it seems like Tesfaye's pushing boundaries and toying with different styles, Starboy
is a win. But those moments compose a distinct minority of the album's running time, often leaning towards complacency that frustrates rather than disappoints. Take "Stargirl Interlude", where the typically passionless Lana Del Rey provides one of the most exhilarating moments of the album in a brief interlude that threatens The Weeknd's negative sexual impulses. It's different, and articulates complexities in The Weeknd that otherwise might not have been revealed ('I just want to see you shine / 'cos I know you're a Stargirl
'). For the most part, though, there's hardly enough inspiration to carry the album past the hour-mark, evident when considering the breadth of influences Tesfaye's pulling from. Sometimes it's obvious, as in "False Alarm," where wild stabs of synth and sarcastically blunted lyrics sound clearly indebted to The Smiths and all the better for it. Sometimes it's just uninspired; at best, "Party Monster," at worst, "True Colors," "Attention," "Nothing Without You," etc. The greatest moments however come from Daft Punk, who create Starboy
's most decisive victories. In "Starboy," The Weeknd kills himself, brags about his cars, and talks about snorting blow in synonymous language, all to the tune of a robust and hooky drum machine. In "I Feel it Coming," he trades up perverted for platonic, serenading platitudes over a lite-disco beat. In both, he's providing listeners with new possibilities for where The Weeknd can go, possibilities of radio hinterland that "Can't Feel My Face" didn't fully comprehend. However, for most of Starboy
, these possibilities remain vague and The Weeknd's execution sounds staid; despite boasting a likable cast of producers, features, and influences, there's no devolution of familiarity or procedure. In one sense, it's Starboy
's greatest success, navigating expectations by being at the very least competent. In another, more critical sense, it's disappointing, another suggestion that Tesfaye is just another well-wrought pop musician.
Not that "Starboy" is a misnomer. Talk of being the King of the Fall aside, Tesfaye's lyricism is laced with so much casual nihilism that it acts like a crutch rather than a character trait. Though there's probably a great deal that can be written about him lopping of his ungodly mane, Starboy
isn't an album that particularly prizes reinvention. Save the nice little rebirth narrative of the title-track, it sounds like a lateral move. He's still trying new things in the vaguest sense- a tenuous nod to Prince and Bowie- but it's so infrequent it registers as anomalous and not the norm. Essentially, though the specter of legacy has given way to a distinct dearth of personality, Tesfaye has made the sort of album that rewards attention but doesn't punish cursory listens. It's still undeniably of-the-moment stuff- featuring Kendrick Lamar- and it's nothing worth effusive praise. But, much like Beauty Behind the Madness
, it's a better defined rendition of The Weeknd, capable and willing of churning out hits and staying the course. That's good enough for now.