The Weeknd got his start as a mysterious, hedonism-celebrating bad boy with nappy hair and an ear for revolutionary, claustrophobic and psychologically questionable, dark R&B. He first hit the spotlight when he was featured on a blog run by the OVO Camp famous for launching Drake to stardom and found his niche in well placed features like the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, “FML” from Kanye West’s latest, and “Crew Love” from Drake’s Take Care. With “Can’t Feel My Face,” his first big pop hit off his most successful record Beauty Behind the Madness, which also featured his two Fifty Shades singles and countless other hit songs like “The Hills,” “Tell You Friends,” and “In the Night,” The Weeknd defined his place in pop/R&B.
In my review of Beauty Behind the Madness, I talked about my favorite of his records, his debut House of Balloons. For The Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, life was parties like you couldn’t believe, drugs like you couldn’t believe, women like you couldn’t believe, and the juxtaposition of the excitement and dread felt towards its never-ending cyclical nature. In the middle of it all was Abel, and he was so unapologetically proud of what seemed like a heaven-turned-hell lifestyle that it made for a unique and extremely captivating narrative. Beauty Behind the Madness still held this mindset like on “The Hills” and “Often,” but it was tracks such as “Real Life,” “Losers,” and “Tell Your Friends” that showed a glimpse into some well needed self-reflection and character development that dove further into the depths of Abel’s psyche.
Starboy is a different story. For one, it’s Abel’s most sobering record. No longer needing to rely on his dark hedonistic past for songwriting material, though that’s not to say that it’s gone all together, the lyrical material comes off awkwardly more superficial than before. As someone who really pays attention to wanting to give the fans what they want, The Weeknd has written Starboy as a full-fledged pop record. Beauty Behind the Madness and its massive hit “Can’t Feel My Face” sold more than his previous four albums combined, so it’s easy to see why The Weeknd went pop. He wasn’t going to go darker, if anything his next record was going to be even lighter. Creating the persona of the “Starboy,” Abel told Zane Lowe that it’s an alter ego built to tell the story of his success, but after listening to the record, it seems like “Starboy” is a lot more than simply a personified idea of his fame entering record #6.
“Look what you’ve done,” he blames us, “I’m a motherfuckin’ Starboy.” This new persona, the light and freshly-cut-hair Weeknd, is our fault. The first words uttered on Starboy are: “I’m tryna put you in the worst mood.” Sure, the title-track might feature enough braggadocio to assume he’s proud of his transformation, and don’t get me wrong he definitely is, “Reminder” is great, but there’s two sides to every Weeknd. We loved “Can’t Feel Me Face,” his biggest pop hit to date, so he became that Weeknd to attain the success and fame he’s always wanted: to become a “Starboy.” But is it all it’s cracked up to be? What does he have now that he hadn’t always had besides some new fancy cars and some clothing-line partnerships? His first record described the kind of parties, women, drugs, and lifestyle that some artists never thought they could acquire and spend the rest of their career bragging about. If anything, The Weeknd now speaks about it all on the same level as they do, but without any feelings of gratefulness, surprise, excitement, or unfamiliarity.
Most of “Starboy” comes off as superficial and contrived, which makes sense when you look at the writing and production list for most of these tracks, but it’s in the meaning of “Starboy” that pieces it all together and makes sense out of a record with a great introspective opener followed by some of the most mall-sounding repetitive pop of 2016. Starboy isn’t just our fault for only celebrating that one mundane pop side of The Weeknd, but it’s also his own. Like someone pep-talking themselves in the mirror before trying to dance to “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd did this to himself as well. He’s nothing more than just another pop-star now. “Look what you’ve done,” he blames himself, “I’m a motherfuckin’ Starboy.”