From the dramatic shearing off of his iconic palm-tree dreads to the annihilation of his former self in ‘Starboy’’s music video and his “r.i.p @abelxo” Instagram post, signs of a lead up to major change in The Weeknd have been obvious. What is this change and who is the new The Weeknd?
His collaboration with Daft Punk on Starboy’s opening and closing tracks makes his intentions clear. In 80s-inspired opener ‘Starboy’ he declares that he would “switch up my style/ I take any lane” – a promise he fully exemplifies in closer ‘I Feel It Coming’. He lets the French robots take over the track and it is surprisingly (and jarringly) sunny and fresh. It sounds like a slowed-down version of ‘Get Lucky’ and paints The Weeknd in unconvincing shades of perfect boyfriend (you’ve been scared of love and what it did to you/ you don’t have to run, I know what you’ve been through). A number of Starboy’s other songs are just as questionable. While undeniably littered with gems, chunks of the album are bland pandering to the masses. ‘Rockin’ (produced by Max Martin and Ali Payami, no less) sounds too much like generic, inoffensive house-pop – it could have been a song written for anyone. R&B banger ‘False Alarm’ with its screamy chorus and contrived crowd-participation oriented chants ‘hey! hey! hey! hey!’, paired with its cringe-worthy clichéd lyrics (“diamonds and the rings are her fantasy/… you love her, but you’ll never be enough”), is almost painful to listen to. ‘True Colors’ is a love ballad that could easily have come off a Jason Derulo or D’Angelo album. While these are objectively good songs to jive to, they simply are sorely lacking in the dark, throbbing tension that has always set the Weeknd apart from his contemporaries.
Nonetheless the 18-song-long album undeniably does feature a fair number of sound tracks. Starboy’s harder-hitting songs, in particular autobiographical tracks ‘Sidewalks’ and ‘Ordinary Life’, are exceptional both lyrically and musically. Alongside a dose of typical Weeknd crass (the song opens with a fellatio scene in which Abel’s “fingers let go of the wheel when I cum”) ‘Ordinary Life’ is chock full of religious imagery, telling of Abel’s mixed feelings towards his life of drug-fuelled hedonism and musing that he would “trade it for a halo”. ‘Sidewalks’ finds Kendrick Lamar and Abel celebrating (or boasting of) their rise from humble beginnings to fame and fortune over a laid-back guitar riff and simple drums that evoke an understated rolling through the hood.
The best track on the album, however, isn’t even a proper full-length song. The brief interlude ‘Stargirl’ features Lana Del Rey relating a pornographic fantasy over a minimal backing track and Abel cooing “I just want to see you shine, cause I know you are a Stargirl” to close. The song pulsates with the tension that is so lacking from most of Starboy, and who better to feature here than Lana? “Me and Lana have been friends for a long time”, Abel said in a Pitchfork interview. “I feel like we’ve always been talking to each other through our music. She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music.” Similarly, ‘Party Monster’, co-written by Lana and featuring her background vocals, evokes the same Trilogy vibe of ‘Stargirl’. Collaborating with Lana was essentially a return to his old sound – one could say her collab tracks are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Daft Punk’s.
Starboy disappoints in many ways, and this hits hardest with diehard Trilogy fans. The new direction Abel has taken is essentially as he reminds us of in ‘Reminder’, the track strategically placed before the barrage of unexceptional pop. “All I wanna do is make that money”, yet at the same time, “Every time you try to forget who I am/ I’ll be right there to remind you again”. Starboy has somewhat achieved that, but sadly, as an awkward potpourri of shadowy, druggy alt-R&B and indistinguishable pop. With the way things are looking, perhaps it is time we prepare to bid the palm-tree-headed sadboy we knew, adieu.