Starboy is the first album The Weeknd has released as a superstar. His last album Beauty Behind The Madness, set him up for stardom with that massive Max Martin-produced single Can’t Feel My Face, taking him from a dark, misunderstood bedroom producer to a mainstage headliner and a household name. Starboy is The Weeknd following collaborations with Beyoncé and Kanye West – the type of artist that can get one of the most enigmatic duos ever, Daft Punk, to producer not one but two songs.
Given that he’s now a staple of the mainstream world, it’s interesting to hear him go back to his dark, mixtape roots on Starboy rather than extending the grandiose, pop aesthetic of Beauty Behind The Madness. While, Can’t Feel My Face is arguably his biggest hit ever, it’s the success of The Hills that informs this record. It was a record that no one expected to achieve mainstream success and yet it shot to number one in the US proving that radio was perhaps more ready for his dark, hazy sounds than anyone could’ve predicted.
Starboy picks up where The Hills left of. Sure, it’s a glossier, more neon-lit offering, but it’s exactly where The Weeknd wants to be lyrically – demonic with a slight hint of confidence. Over a Daft Punk-provided, pulsating beat he introduces us to the album by singing, “I’m tryna put you in the worst mood.” It’s an unlikely hit, but he slides through those velvety verses with such conviction that it’s almost impossible to turn away. Sung by anyone else, it would’ve been monotonous to the point of boredom.
Lyrically, Starboy is about the downside of fame and money. He’s navigating temptation and dealing with some of the disappointment that comes with getting rich after you’ve spent your whole life chasing it. Party Monster is a woozy, distorting cut that pairs his partying ways with a sense of loneliness while Attention deals with a degrading relationship over an emotion-packed Cashmere Cat beat. He’s got the whole world looking at him with much of them on his side but he’s still haunted by loneliness, social anxiety and the fear of being misunderstood.
Reminder deals with the fear of being misunderstood impeccably, reminding people that he’s not the sort of popstar that’s going to water things down for anyone. “I just won a new award for a kids show/Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag a blow/I’m like goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice,” he sings in perhaps the best line of the entire record, addressing the fact that he scored a worldwide hit with a song about cocaine. The Weeknd is one of the few artists around right now who has been able to crack the mainstream without diluting his lyrical content and that’s Starboy‘s greatest success – it’s packed full of hits and it still sounds distinctly like a The Weeknd record.
Hitmaker Martin pops back up here on one occasion for the closest song to the funk-tinges of Can’t Feel My Face, Rockin. It’s a glossy, refined track but The Weeknd’s MJ-esque vocals make it work and he does the same thing on the equally funky Secrets, using the depths of his voice to make a straightforward pop song haunting. Elsewhere on the record, the pop vibe doesn’t work so well. A Lonely Night feels like a limp and unnecessary inclusion on the record and Love To Lay suffers from poor lyrics like, “In your heart, we are nothing but strangers in the end.” That said, closer I Feel It Coming is one of the most accessible pop songs he’s ever written and it’s heartwarming and euphoric in a way he’s never been before. Daft Punk’s groovy but not overbearing production has a lot to do with that.
The Weeknd has all the resources right now and he really could’ve worked with anyone he liked on Starboy so it’s impressive that he’s only chosen ones that make sense. It’s a dream team list of people many of whom are friends and it shows. Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd are kindred spirits and she slots into Stargirl Interlude like she’s his female alter-ego. Future is also a prime inclusion, adding a roughness to All I Know which is juxtaposed by The Weeknd’s velvety tones. Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper in the world right now, but he’s delivered some seriously phoned in verses this year from Maroon 5 to Sia. The Weeknd demands better though and Lamar’s verse on Sidewalks is frenzied and furious, helping elevate it to the album’s rightful centrepiece and highlight.
Production-wise, he’s also chosen wisely. Cashmere Cat perfectly occupies that space between electronica and R&B which is fast becoming The Weeknd’s sweet spot, Diplo darkens his festival-ready EDM and heads towards the hip-hop world on Nothing Without You and Metro Boomin expectedly delivers the album’s trap moment. Apart from the latter, they’re not obvious collaborators but The Weeknd pulls them into his world rather than letting them yank him in another sonic direction.
While, he’s masterfully curated and edited the album’s collaborators, he hasn’t shown the same expertise when it comes to the tracklisting. At 18 songs, it’s way too long and it really falters at the halfway point because it all starts to blend together. There’s so much gold here but some of the later highlights like All I Know are watered down by unnecessary inclusions prior.
If you edit it yourself though and chip away at the rough diamond, you’ll uncover something pretty spectacular. The Weeknd is a genuinely exciting popstar – one that hasn’t compromised to get where he is. Despite working with big-name producers and collaborators his mysterious personality is always at the forefront and that’s utterly captivating at many points on this record. He’s undoubtedly on the right path, Starboy is his best LP to date, but his career-defining record is still ahead of him and that’s more exciting than it is frustrating.