Hype can be a vicious beast, can’t it? It can improve something, or at least pertain to. But if something doesn’t live up to expectations it can come crashing way, way down. I certainly felt the hype surrounding The Weeknd‘s new album Starboy, released just a year after the stellar Beauty Behind The Madness. I was ready for this album to be mind-blowing and the album’s pre-release singles attested to that. From the first notes of the album – the Daft Punk collab Starboy – I was ready for a more neon Weeknd. Sure, it was poppy, but there was that delicious feeling of anticipation, the hope that this was scratching the surface.
To start at the top, Starboy is straight up pop. This offering is a complete departure from his previous work, which seems to have completed his transition to fully formed pop-star. Your thoughts on this transition will ultimately shape your thoughts on this album. That is to say, if you’re a huge fan of Trilogy and Beauty Behind The Madness, and you were hoping for more of the same, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
Starboy is good. It’s different. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. There are stellar moments and standout songs that show a level of mastery that makes The Weeknd deserving of his pop throne, but there’s a lot of space in between these moments. Around half of the 18 tracks on the album are memorable, and the high points are spectacular. The opener and the closer (both Daft Punk collabs) are two of The Weeknd’s best songs ever. It’s just that there’s way too much chaff in between, and a couple of the tracks are plain terrible.
Light and boppy Starboy isn’t burdened by an in-your-face Daft Punk influence. The drums are delightfully hollow, which fits with the neon-club sound of the track, and it’s dark enough to feel like a Weeknd track. Party Monster is next, and it’s dope, it may be the best dark track on the album. It’s heavy enough to echo BBTM, but it’s different enough to feel pop. Listening to this song with a bass boost will blow your mind. Although the track is repetitve, it fits with the thematic loop of getting wasted and losing yourself in meaningless sex.
False Alarm is great. It’s the one track on the album that you will need to grow into, but when it clicks for you it’s worth it. I’m surprised this song comes so early in the album, with such a massive energy that forces you to dance. This song also has the best fucking music video. Repetitive, again, but the energy carries it forward into a really eerie outro…
…which in turn carries into the shockingly smooth Reminder. This is the song that’s closest to Trilogy era Weeknd. The slower pace is a welcome change, and this is one of the more seductive tracks of the whole year – which is what we wanted from The Weeknd. Immediately we speed back up with Rockin’, one of the highest points on the album, and one of the best pop songs of the year, period. It’s got a speedy and driving beat, and a high-hat/snare combo that will see it garner plenty of club-time. It’s a beautiful dance track, you can’t miss this.
The beats keep coming with Secrets. The two-step combo of funk is devastating to anyone’s hopes of staying still. It’s one of Tesfaye’s smoother performances, and the combination of beachy vibes and 80s pads gives it a delightfully summery feel.
We slow down once more – this time it feels unwarranted though – with True Colors. Nothing massively memorable, but it bubbles away in a nice way. If you were in a club, this would be the song to get a drinks break to. Stargirl Interlude features Lana Del Rey, and the title is super literal: She is the real star here. She fucking kills it, lending her beautiful vocals to a small but memorable interlude. It’s ethereal and spacey, and great all the way.
Sidewalks brings a weirder sound the album. It has an inconsistent beat, and features the great king Kendrick Lamar. Obviously that makes it a lot more hip-hop than the rest of the album, and it picks up both tone and pace. much lighter sound. It feels like a single, and the whole thing is a little out of place on the album (especially after Lana’s haunting vocals). Would be a great track out of context, but in terms of the album as a whole… yeah not as much.
The pace continues to chop and change, screeching to a halt again with the underwhelming Six Feet Under, staying low with the synth-heavy Love To Lay, brightening up with the ’80s/Michael Jackson-inspired A Lonely Night, and dropping once more on Attention, a dull number with a heavily auto-tuned bridge. It’s clear that the album will be a commercial success, but the price he’s paid is omitting any kind of challenge or danger. Ho-hum.
Quality picks back up with Ordinary Life, while Nothing Without You continues in that mellow vein. All I Know brings an amazingly dope Future collaboration to the fore, a great track with a slow but fresh pace which orbits around the breakdown ahead of Future’s verse. Alhough lyrically sub-par, the rapper’s auto-tuned tones are a great contrast against Tesfaye’s vocals; all in all it’s a really nice change and one of the album’s best moments.
Final track I Feel It Coming’s place at the end of the album is both a blessing and a curse; it’s a phenomenal track to end on, but in saying that, it highlights how utterly mediocre so much of the midsection was. The first five tracks were great, and there were high points throughout (A Lonely Night in particular), but it doesn’t reach “greatness” until the very end.
The Weeknd knows how to deliver brilliant music, and he’s shown that on this album. But it falls short; it’s inconsistent, it flits about, it doesn’t push far enough. It’s safe. The production is beautiful and the transitions are seamless, but you can’t dive into a shallow pool.
The album is worth a spin or two, it’s certainly not ‘bad’. If nothing else, keep the standout tracks for your summer playlist. But in a year filled with an unbelievable amount of incredible music – incredible albums, on top of BBTM being so brilliant, it’s hard to not feel disappointed.
Image: Pretty Much Amazing