They say fame changes people but it never seems to alter the hedonistic and nihilistic. It instead enables those immersed in it, propelling the excess, pardoning the disorderly, excusing the absurd and granting more access to the things that could destroy them in the end. Dollar signs don't alter the people with them as much as they do those right outside the glossy bubble, who normalize their demented sins in hopes of securing a squatted seat next to the spotlight, like they're shining shoes.
It didn’t take The Weeknd naming his third studio album Starboy for us to realize his career has breached the galaxy. The 26-year-old East Toronto native has transitioned from drug-crazed sad boy to international pop star boy, but the transformation surely wasn’t overnight. Last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness cemented that Abél Makkonen Tesfaye had moved past making drugged-out shindig background noise and was indeed ready to indulge in his devil’s pie from the mainstream pop world.
What happens when an avowed nihilist nearly loses the plot?Starboy represents Abel Tesfaye's third album on a major label and sixth project overall, and while the underground mystery has largely dissipated around the Weeknd, in the mainstream spotlight, he's still determining the artist he wants us to see. He's "Homeless to Forbes list," he persuasively frames it on the Kendrick Lamar-starring "Sideways," but something has been lost in translation. The hardcore XO faithful are happy for Tesfaye's success, but there's a niggling feeling that their hero thrives best in the shadows.
In a year when the biggest stars of yesteryear and today all decided to drop albums with varying levels of fanfare, the man who the New York Times profiled last year on his quest to be “the Biggest Pop Star in the World” had a comparatively traditional rollout: release a few choice singles showcasing the range of the album, perform them on the requisite late-night television shows, and, in true 2016 fashion (literally and figuratively), add a few pop-up shops in the cities which arbitrate cool for good measure. Heck, there’s even a bus advertising the album on his Instagram just in case you’re technologically averse and still want to be in tune with the choice artists of the day. All of this to say, Abel Tesfaye acted in such a way that he and his team thought that one of the biggest pop crossovers this decade in Beauty Behind the Madness was only the beginning; that they could do one better.
Who is the Weeknd? That’s the question a lot of us asked when the act first materialized, fully-formed, with 2011’s House of Balloons. Thanks to the group’s savvy anti-publicity campaign, the question had a literal bent: who are the people who made these songs? Fast-forward five years and there’s little mystery remaining when it comes to the provenance of the Weeknd’s music—like so many modern pop songs, his are now designed in consultation with a committee of experts. And yet, even as we watch Abel Tesfaye walk the red carpet in the light of day, the question remains: Who is the Weeknd? Is he a drugged-out lothario? A beloved pop star? A nihilist foil to Drake? The second coming of Michael Jackson? The runaway success of last years’ Beauty Behind the Madness—two No.
The Weeknd’s rise to the top of the pop music world has been an unconventional one not because of his talent, but because of his image and persona. “Goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice,” the 26-year-old Toronto native born Abel Tesfaye sings on “Reminder”, a song from his third proper album as The Weeknd, Starboy. He’s referencing the major awards he was up for thanks to his breakthrough album, last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness.
The difficulty with trying to be all things to all concerned is that, inevitably, cracks will appear. While the late Leonard Cohen famously observed that such surface-level flaws allow for light to creep in, there are instances where structural defects register as concerning. In the case of Abel Tesfaye and The Weeknd, his latest manoeuvre amidst the cutthroat world of mass-market pop shouldn’t surprise anyone who fucked with last summer’s Beauty Behind the Madness.
The extent of the 2015 Weeknd commercial rebound, symbolized by platinum certifications for Beauty Behind the Madness and all four of its singles, didn't merely embolden Abel Tesfaye. On this follow-up's fourth track, a blithe midtempo cut where Tesfaye takes a swipe at pretenders while boasting about drinking codeine out of one of his trophies, the level of success is a source of amusement. He notes the absurdity in taking a "kids' show" award for "Can't Feel My Face," in which he was "talkin' 'bout a face numbin' off a bag of blow." The track actually lost to Adele's "Hello," but it clearly, somewhat comically, reached an unintended demographic.
Perhaps no songwriter working today so uncomfortably blends an innate pop sensibility with a bottomless appetite for making utterly joyless, consistently mopey music as the Weeknd, né Abél Tesfaye. These qualities seem ripe to be punctured by a pair of neo-house masterminds, famous for their ecstatic, energetic arrangements and elaborate robot suits. But just as Daft Punk succeeded in harnessing Pharrell's inherent charm on “Get Lucky,” condensing him into the sweet-voiced figurehead for a buoyant cheeseball anthem, the French duo manages to get the best out of their latest collaborator without effecting any real transformation from the artist's usual lightweight sensibility.
"It just seems like niggas trying to sound like my old shit," sings the Weeknd on "Reminder." Ironically, years after remaking contemporary R&B in his druggy, sex-obsessed vision on his iconic debut EP House of Balloons, the Toronto singer has settled into a familiar routine. We know that his songs will explore love as either a tortured form of codependency or transactional pornography; that he will boast of his forays into a one-percent world of luxury vehicles, white lines and sylph-like women; and that the beats will possess a synthesized sheen that gleams like coated stock paper in Vogue magazine. The Weeknd has managed to offer some kind of ingenuity in spite of his well-worn shticks in the past.
About a quarter of an hour into his third studio album proper, the Weeknd makes reference to his biggest hit to date. I Can’t Feel My Face was a huge global hit that helped propel him to history-making success: at one point in 2015, the US R&B chart’s Top 3 was entirely comprised of singles by him. It was a pop record so perfectly turned as to seem undeniable – “it’s impossible to imagine a world or alternative reality where this song isn’t number 1,” exclaimed Billboard – but as he notes on this record, there was at least something a little improbable about its success and the fame that followed.
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.
Whatever you make of The Weeknd’s swift transition from ‘Trilogy’’s moody blog-pop days to his debut full-length proper, ‘Kiss Land’, few following Abel Tesfaye’s career lacked a strong opinion. During those early days, when he made mixtapes like ‘House of Balloons’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’, this was an artist who wanted the world to imagine him consigned to his bedroom, crafting pop gems that were superficially futuristic and thematically a throwback. There were no interviews, fanfare was limited, and only a handful of moody publicity shots even gave us a glance at what Tesfaye actually looked like.
By the time House of Balloons reached its fifth anniversary last winter, it was clear The Weeknd had come a long way from the shadowy crevices of Toronto’s bursting underground. After his song “Earned It” landed on one of 2015’s biggest movie soundtracks, Fifty Shades of Grey, and he carved his drug-addled image into the pop landscape with Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd had staked his claim as R&B’s next superstar. Then, this past fall, he up and killed himself — at least, in the video for his new album’s title track, “Starboy.” The move was a sign of change.
The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abél Tesfaye) only sees possibilities, not limitations, where his music is concerned. The Canadian producer-songwriter’s official label debut, 2012’s Trilogy, was a triple album compiling his eclectic early mixtapes, while 2015’s hit Beauty Behind The Madness LP took a loose, expansive approach to R&B/pop production. But unlike many artists, The Weeknd has always been hyper-self-aware about the ugly side of ambition, and the downside to achieving success.
“Attention,” which comes near the end of “Starboy,” the new album by the Weeknd, traverses one of his most familiar subjects: psychological antagonism pegged to sexual dominance. Or maybe it’s sexual antagonism pegged to psychological dominance. Either way. “Only thing left is the sex now,” he sings with what sounds like resignation until a couple of lines later, when he adds, “Only see me on the TV or the bed now.” He’s too busy to be sorry.
In her book Future Sex, Emily Witt takes a long look at the way technology and contemporary culture have shaped sex and love in our lives today. Reviewing online dating and internet pornography, she offers a short history of how digital sex culture progressed from something seedy in the darker corners of the web to something ubiquitous; in a few decades, we’ve moved from unmoderated chat rooms to the sleek, chaperoned product design of Tinder, from gritty, amateur pornos to the soft lighting and professionalism of a billion-dollar industry. This shift, according to Witt, has resulted from a conscious marketing maneuver, the move to what she calls a “clean, well-lighted space” that can attract a wider audience.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the obvious 2016 one: length. Streaming charts favour albums with more songs, like Drake’s 80-minute ‘Views’. At 18 tracks and 68 minutes, it’s impossible not to see ‘Starboy’ aiming for those algorithms.Deep into the album it becomes a slog, with too much banal, forgettable fluff like ‘Attention’, ‘Nothing Without You’ and ‘Die For You’ (this honestly goes, “I would die for you / I would lie for you”).
The Weeknd’s new album extends to you a simple deal. You can, with ease, accept two handfuls of the finest pop songs that the great, whirring Song Machine has to offer in 2016. You will also have to listen to him moan, “Like David Carradine I’mma die when I cum.” As Abel Tesfaye navigates superstardom, this is where he finds himself. He is one of the more exhilarating vectors for the music industry’s top songwriters—the very air of danger that makes the best pop music feel thrilling is baked into his appeal.
It’s easy to imagine a mood board on the studio wall listing various 80s influences for the Weeknd’s third studio album: the Stranger Things soundtrack, Tron, Tears for Fears. A gleaming neon retro-futuristic streak has run through the Toronto pop star’s music since 2013’s Kiss Land, and Abel Tesfaye brings that approach to the fore on Starboy, his most sonically cohesive album since the Trilogy era. The atmosphere of nocturnal menace and hip-hop bravado so integral to his sound are present, but smoothed over by bright, striving melodies that temper the nihilistic tendencies with the upbeat/melancholy dichotomy that has served mainstream pop so well since ABBA.