Written by Sam Craft ; PC: The Weeknd
"A product of the tropes of contemporary rap culture colliding with the recent 80’s throwback..."
In 1972, David Bowie released Starman, a single off of The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, an album that explored themes of sexuality, drug use, and the commercialization of rock music. Now hailed as a classic, it was a risky move for Bowie in 1972, when many of the ideas he sang about weren’t as accepted in mainstream culture as they are now. Somehow, he managed to pull off his sexually ambiguous persona and paved the way for generations of musicians, artists, and awkward theater kids who needed a role model everywhere. Fast forward to the release of 26 year old Pop/R&B singer Abel Tesfaye’s (known professionally as The Weeknd) third full length LP, titled Starboy, which he has said is in homage to the late glam rock superstar. It’s a product of the tropes of contemporary rap culture colliding with the recent 80’s throwback, particularly Tesfaye’s apparent obsession with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
The now award winning artist is an enigmatic character, whether that be by his own laconic and cagey personality or the persona his PR team have manufactured for him. Probably a little of both, if maybe a bit more on the manufactured side. After a string of mixtapes (thus compiled and released as one collection, titled Trilogy) that brought Tesfaye onto the scene and garnered mostly positive reception, as well as the successful release of his debut album, Kissland, he exploded onto the public conscious with his 2015 sophomore effort, Beauty Behind the Madness, that scored him a few number one hits and featured songs like The Hills, and In the Night the showed of his vocal prowess, the latter, along with massive hit, Can’t Feel My Face, betrayed his affections for Michael Jackson. Now, a year later, he continues his tradition of poor album names with Starboy, which explores new sonic ground without compromising his dark, gothic R&B aesthetic he has so carefully crafted.
Lead single and album opener, Starboy introduces us to a somewhat new sound for The Weeknd while still reminiscent of his past work. It remains dark, but recalls a more dystopian sound than previously heard from him, like if Tron was an album, not a movie, and if Tron was about flexing your cash and doing coke. The music video revealed a little more about The Weeknd’s plans for his new release. With Tesfaye, still sporting his trademark Dreads at one end of a table and another figure with his face concealed by a balaclava, the mysterious stranger suffocates the singer. After removing the Balaclava to reveal that he’s also Tesfaye, albeit with the dreads cut off, we can assume that it was also meant to reveal his plans for reinvention with the release of Starboy. Unlike Bowie, whom the album is named in honor of, who continuously reinvented himself over the course of his career, this doesn’t feel successful or sincere. Throughout the course of the album we hear the same themes that Tesfaye has always sung about; cocaine, promiscuous sex, and self-loathing. To his credit, Tesfaye still manages to deliver in other departments.
Album opener and lead single Starboy, is a slick and catchy introduction. True Colors, which might be the best track here if you exclude the aforementioned song, delivers an extremely good vocal performance, if the lyrics are often times uninspired. One of the strengths of this record, and The Weeknd in general, is his vocal performances, especially when he lets the height of his range show. If The Hills or In the Night gave us a look at his capabilities on Beauty Behind the Madness, songs like True Colors, Sidewalks, and A Lonely Night show Tesfaye’s skills in full bloom. The lattermost track really brings his Michael Jackson worship to light, as it sounds like it could have literally been ripped from the King of Pop’s discography. As derivative as it may be, Tesfaye works the angle well and pulls it off, given that it could have fallen flat so easily. That being said, not everything here is as charmingly derivative. The worst track on the record, Party Monster, borrows extensively from the elements of contemporary underground rap. I mean, the instrumental is just like Pouya’s Yuh, which isn’t a good thing. On top of that, despite Tesfaye’s surface efforts to reinvent himself, he’s still raps and sings about drugs and promiscuous sex using the same old tropes he always has. He hasn’t put in much real effort to change his image from a coked out womanizer to anything new, and despite bragging that his “flow [is] too sick, Kevin Costner can’t touch [him],” he doesn’t have especially great skill as a rapper.
I wouldn’t go so far to say that The Weeknd put any real effort into changing his image with his latest release, seeing as he’s still stuck at the same party that he was a few years ago, and he might not have yet realized all of his strengths yet, but he manages to deliver an enjoyable record. All of the generic and uninspired tracks taken into account, Starboy is still a solid record and will probably serve to be a stepping stone between what he used to want us to think of him and a truly new identity. Channeling his inner Michael Jackson, Tesfaye showed us what he is capable of doing, and on his next release I think he can deliver a truly great record. For now I have to say Starboy is an enjoyable release that has a good number of solid and even great tracks, but there is plenty of room for improvement.