No matter how hard he tries to convince us otherwise on Starboy, Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, has lost his edge in his pursuit of super stardom. It wouldn’t be a problem if the music were captivating enough to justify the makeover – pop music can still be great – but Starboy is a neon sludge of forgettable hooks and uninspired lyrics. An 18-track album needs a compelling narrative to justify its runtime, and The Weeknd’s vapid tales of wealth and debauchery grow stale after 30 minutes.
Musically it doesn’t fare much better, with even the more instrumentally adventurous tracks being undercut by hollow lyricism. Tesfaye flirts with punk on aggressive oddity False Alarm, but is held back by a run-of-the-mill narrative, crooning about a textbook gold-digger before letting loose on the fierce hook; he ventures into pop-house with propulsive Rockin, while tritely pondering over “ones that got away" and namedropping narcotics. Gone is the world-weary contemplation of Trilogy or even 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, though amidst the humdrum melodrama and hollow nihilism, there are occasional moments of shrewd lyricism.
'I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking 'bout a face numbing off a bag of blow,' he drolly muses on Reminder, referencing his recent Teen Choice Award nomination [he didn't even win], and emphatically shrugging off pressure to be a positive role model. The problem is that The Weeknd tries to have it both ways: he wants the splendour of mainstream appeal, while still preserving his edgy mystique. And Starboy proves he can’t.
Ironically, the album is at its best as unabashed pop music. Love To Lay opens with a brooding verse, finding The Weeknd considering whether to pursue a promiscuous woman, before exploding into one of the more memorable pop choruses of the year. Likewise, disco-tinged closer I Feel It Coming feels unmistakably familiar, yet dazzling nonetheless. Channelling his inner MJ, Tesfaye closes the album with its best track, coolly crooning over a sedative keyboard line while Daft Punk harmonise in the back. Aside from these lighter outings, though, there’s just not much to love about Starboy.
There’s nothing to really hate about it, either, which might be its greatest sin. Unable to elicit more than a shrug for most of its runtime, the record is just one more passable pop album in a year that really didn’t need another. For someone who built his image on sex and sleaze, Starboy feels rather limp.
Listen to: I Feel It Coming, Love To Lay