Back in 2011, the little-known Abel Tesfaye, AKA The Weeknd, released a trilogy of critically acclaimed mixtapes all instantly recognisable by their nocturnal aesthetics of sparse, synth-heavy R&B production and lyrics concerning drug overdoses and sexual hedonism. Tesfaye’s identity was shrouded in mystery, hidden behind his signature falsetto, and when the live shows came along, said falsetto was barely audible over the adulating screams of his largely female fan base. Skip to 2016 and Tesfaye has migrated to the mainstream charts, having earned himself a string of Billboard Number Ones from his ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ release and two wonderfully ironic nominations for Kids’ Choice Awards, including one for the thinly-veiled ode to cocaine addiction, ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’. With the release of his third studio album, ‘Starboy’, then, it seems The Weeknd is continuing his is quest for pop-R&B superstardom, attendant with a (marginally) cleaner image.
‘Starboy’ remains in keeping with Tesfaye’s previous releases to the extent that it is a visually striking piece of work. While the ‘Trilogy’ mixtapes had their Polaroid voyeurism and ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ its plaintive collage, ‘Starboy’ retains Tesfaye’s self-mythologising. The album’s cover, reminiscent of ‘60s exploitation film posters, depicts Tesfaye brooding at the viewer, a large crucifix dangling from his neck as an emblematic prop. The cover is coupled with the violent video for the record’s title-track, displaying Tesfaye destroying not only a previous version of himself (complete with ‘palm-tree hair’ as one YouTube commenter puts it) but also a selection of his previous awards and platinum records, all using a giant neon crucifix strangely reminiscent of Kylo Ren’s flaming Star Wars lightsaber. It seems Tesfaye is making a point of an artistic renewal and rebirth with the release of this new album.
Such renewal is hard to find, though, as the majority of the songs on ‘Starboy’ feel like a logical continuation of The Weeknd sound, removing much of the sparse production and languorous sampling of the mixtapes and instead creating tracks aimed squarely at the radio and dance floor. The title-track and opener sets the tone for the rest of the record; heavily influenced by collaborators Daft Punk, it rumbles with an infectiously bass-heavy beat, punctuated by unadorned piano chords and Tesfaye’s clarity of voice, all building to a funk-inflected chorus. The influence of Michael Jackson on Tesfaye’s melodic choices and vocal delivery has been much commented on and it is certainly present in ‘Starboy’. ‘Secrets’ feels like an ‘80s Michael Jackson dance floor mash-up, whilst ‘A Lonely Night’ is so overtly MJ-influenced in its chorus it is almost tongue-in-cheek.
Yet, notwithstanding the salutes to the King of Pop, ‘Starboy’ finds its strength in these very moments when it unashamedly embraces the pop-R&B divide on tracks such as the synth-funk ‘Love to Lay’ and slow-burner ‘Nothing Without You’. It fails when it removes itself from that well-trodden heritage and moves into the house realm of the Disclosure-sounding ‘Rockin’’, creating a jarring inconsistency in the listening experience. At 18 tracks long even the consistency of Tesfaye’s melodic delivery can verge on the monotonous, whilst the efforts to stave off monotony through interspersing upbeat songs with ballads reminiscent of his early work only serves to confuse the record further. The aggressive chorus of ‘False Alarm’ sits uncomfortably between the trap reverb of ‘Party Monster’ and the subdued R&B of ‘Reminder’, whilst Tesfaye’s collaborations with Lana del Rey on ‘Stargirl Interlude’ and Future on ‘All I Know’ feel gratuitous.
Ultimately, ‘Starboy’ is already proving a commercial success owing to its radio-ready singles and pop-disco influences, yet as an album it veers from song to song as it fails to settle on a specific direction. It may showcase a cleaner sound, both in lyrical content and production, but its value for money at eighteen tracks comes at the cost of coherence.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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