The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abél Tesfaye) only sees possibilities, not limitations, where his music is concerned. The Canadian producer-songwriter’s official label debut, 2012’s Trilogy, was a triple album compiling his eclectic early mixtapes, while 2015’s hit Beauty Behind The Madness LP took a loose, expansive approach to R&B/pop production. But unlike many artists, The Weeknd has always been hyper-self-aware about the ugly side of ambition, and the downside to achieving success. Once celebrity and riches are in the picture, trade-offs and compromises are also in order.
On previous albums, such wariness manifested itself in paranoia (e.g. the hit “Can’t Feel My Face”), hiding behind chemical indulgences, or personal insecurity. Starboy is no different: “The one I couldn’t stand to be with was myself,” he sings on the sparse, laissez-faire R&B standout “Nothing Without You.” Yet the album’s cautionary tales—call them comedowns, and, in some cases, the other shoe dropping—are more dramatic. Tesfaye is conflicted about romantic dalliances (“Die For You”), how he’s treating women (“A Lonely Night”), his out-of-control lifestyle (“Ordinary Life”), and even his Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award nomination (“Reminder,” where he’s incredulous that “Can’t Feel My Face” received a nod when it’s a song “talking about a face numbing off a bag of blow”).
Wisely, however, Starboy isn’t a one-dimensional treatise on the negative aspects of fame. “Rockin’,” a chilled techno-disco surge, is perfectly fine with a torrid love affair, while the anxious hip-hop swerve “Party Monster” is generally down with drug-fueled debauchery. Co-writer Lana Del Rey adds double-vision backing vocals near the end of the latter song, cooing the word “paranoid” as an echo to Tesfaye’s vocals. Starboy also smartly recognizes how complex it can be to navigate life’s vicissitudes. The delicate slow jam “True Colors” encourages a woman to make herself vulnerable in context with a relationship, and on the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Sidewalks,” Tesfaye examines the disorienting situation of being famous despite growing up in tough environs. His vocals are Auto-Tuned, which makes his depictions of his life from then to now feel even more disjointed.
Like a mythological siren, Del Rey shows up again later on the song “Stargirl Interlude,” an ethereal-pop song that’s one of the record’s few sonic curveballs. (“False Alarm,” a kinetic flail of a song that resembles Panic! At The Disco, is the other.) Overall, Starboy is The Weeknd’s most cohesive statement yet. Tesfaye enlists a host of collaborators—including Daft Punk, rapper Belly, Max Martin, Cashmere Cat, and producer Doc McKinney—to create sultry midnight electro-funk (“A Lonely Night,” “I Feel It Coming”); soulful synthpop (highlight “Secrets,” which samples Tears For Fears’ “Pale Shelter” and quotes the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep”; the ’80s radio chestnut “Love To Lay”; taut hip-hop (“Six Feet Under,” “Ordinary Life”); and earnest ballads (“Attention,” “Die For You”).
Tesfaye’s ambition occasionally gets the best of him on Starboy. The record is a few songs too long, and it loses steam as it progresses. But such imperfections are par for the course: He’d rather express everything he’s feeling than put forth an airbrushed or idealized version of himself. In that sense, Starboy is one of the most confident releases of the year, one bold enough to reveal the cracks in The Weeknd’s façade for the sake of resonant art.