Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Starboy, the third retail album from the Weeknd.
After several years as a dedicated Weeknd Truther - “He was better when his mixtapes were lo-fi and filthy, like the content!” - I reconciled long ago with the glossy ascendance of our anti-hero pop star. Abel’s made it easier by making unforgettable smash hits, most of them from his Beauty Behind the Madness album, which came off underwhelming as a whole to fans and critics alike. But in his pursuit of stadium status, he elected to polish (not abandon) the anti-hero qualities to flourish in contexts unbeknownst to even him: a song about cocaine won a Teen Choice Award, which he pokes fun at on “Reminder,” his clapback to the critics with a Silence of the Lambo punchline not too far from an awkward Asian girl/lo mein play on words.
Starboy is a loose concept album where these contexts rear their heads together, providing ecstatic results when they mesh and generic results when they clone. The album’s sonically-bright/thematically-dark combo is one easily reminiscent of Views from his former counterpart: like the paranoid Aubrey protective of this throne, this Abel spends the course of 18 songs interchangeably fidgeting from and reveling in the temptations of his celebrity. It’s more difficult to pin down the true thread of the concept - boy taken by fame meets girl he treats like all the others, only to work through the error of his ways? - but there’s plenty to love in the sum of its parts when Abel exudes the undeniable confidence that got him in the good graces of the pop canon. It’s what makes a record like “Rockin’” so pleasing even if it sounds Hollister-ready, or “A Lonely Night” so danceable when working with an upbeat camouflage of the same fuckboyisms that made his career.
He’s unapologetically in the big league, handling the likes of Max Martin, Doc McKinney and Cashmere Cat with a grace that isn’t flawless, but unflinching in the risks it takes. While the edgy nuances of past Weeknd records struggle for air in a more predictable pop format, its standouts manage to rekindle that personal intensity while somehow cleansing the palette. The fuckboyisms remain intact, but perhaps there’s a subtle growth in the quest to be an everyman? “True Colors” is where the album really hits its stride, a slow-jam dedicated to finding the real in the woman he’s pursuing. After the somewhat-placeholder “Stargirl Interlude,” with Lana Del Rey introducing the idea of a counterpart to his troubled celebrity, we get “Sidewalks,” the best record on Starboy: an arena-rockish autobiographical gem where Abel’s pain finally reaches his sleeve and Kendrick Lamar delivers as he always does. It’s a vulnerability that’s easily forgotten through the increasing brightness of the Weeknd oeuvre, but to hear him flex in the face of past poverty reaps a much more satisfying reward than quips over petty romance.
The back end of Starboy presents many a question over how Abel’s electing to handle the romantic in his music; from the scatterbrained perspectives found on “Love to Lay” and “Attention,” it’s unclear whether or not he’s sure. The former places him at the whim of a lover whose love is unreturned - suggesting a more cognizant repositioning of the vulnerability in his image - while the latter places him back in power as his lover is somewhere between jealous or desperate for his presence. “Ordinary Life” speaks to this as well, but aside from the Valhalla and Mulholland imagery, it’s difficult to feel the force of the danger coming his way, save for the wildness of a David Carradine punchline about ejaculating.
These tensions are best illustrated in Future’s song-stealing presence in “All I Know,” where his signature melodies of gleeful depravity play alter ego to a Weeknd looking to reconcile with his rockstar ideals for a woman he’s realizing he needs in his life. Round the album out with the melodramatic synth-pop of “Die for You” and the undeniable Daft Punk-assisted “I Feel It Coming,” the weightiness of the last three records make you wish the album’s concept held more cohesion and density in its execution.
Starboy is the portrait of a Weeknd in flux: it’s maximal, experimental, and compatible with any playlist. Aside from being his best retail album, a little digging shows the newfound revelations buried beneath the angst, giving confirmation of watching a new Abel in bloom. The bland or cookie-cutter mistakes on this album don’t feel like mistakes, but growing pains in a long road to becoming a household name quite like his idols. Trilogy is never coming back, and we shouldn’t want it back when we get to witness the chase for something greater. Abel’s only further arming himself to please any crowd, and he will with this effort, but it’s undoubtedly indicative of a future where even the Weeknd we know now may no longer be once he finds the balance to fulfill his own prophecy.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a Vinyl Me, Please staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.