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. Yet he also is still unable to repeatedly hit the spot where his pop ambitions kiss, instead of fight, the scuzzy auteurism that first garnered him a cult fanbase and established him as a singular persona in the pop culture stratosphere.
He did better, perhaps, on his previous album, Beauty Behind the Madness, released a little over a year ago. Led by the completely undeniable “Can’t Feel My Face,” it expanded the Weeknd’s sound to include the snap of blood-rush radio music as well as the grandeur of ‘80s arena-pop. It featured a few regrettable collaborations, and on “In The Night,” a transparent rewrite of “Billie Jean,” you could almost audibly hear Tesfaye straining to clinch a timelessness he may never achieve. But where his previous records ostensibly rendered his tales of coke-fueled anonymous sex on grainy 8mm film, his first major pop record skillfully adapted his story for the widescreen.
Starboy generally follows that album’s lead, but you can also feel Tesfaye pushing backwards a bit, toward the artist he once was but probably can no longer fully be. At a gluttonous 18 tracks, his latest full-length oscillates between songs parents would feel okay about their kids listening to and ones they wouldn’t unless they happen to be Ben Affleck, vaping in his car, desperately trying to connect with his children. Since the 26-year-old Tesfaye is clearly trying to position himself in a lineage of pop legends, it must be pointed out that Starboy does not replicate the artistry—or, more importantly, the editing—of his heroes, and fails on this account in a greater fashion than its predecessor. But, in a purely modern sense, it’s the sort of album that, if you take the time to trim the fat, can make your remember why we believe in pop music as an institution.
In that regard, Starboy contains a compulsively repayable suite of songs. “Rockin’,” the fifth track, written with Max Martin and his henchmen, is a purely delectable pulsating pop confection. It bleeds into “Secrets,” which welds the chorus of the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep” to a beat built off of a sample of Tears For Fears’ “Pale Shelter.” It’s more than the sum of its chopped ‘80s parts, though, with Tesfaye slightly elongating the cadence of the Romantics’ hook to infuse it with a certain alluring breathiness. “True Colors,” which follows that, is the album’s best ballad, a song that suspends Tesfaye’s voice over snares that thwack like something off of a D’Angelo album.
Those songs are all great, but they’re also conspicuously sanitized of the Weeknd’s characteristic impulses. On “Rockin’,” destined to be a single, he sings, “I’m acting reckless baby, about to lose it all / This liquor got me crazy, mixed with that Adderall.” As far as vices go, liquor and Adderall might count as a precarious combination for a college freshman. For Tesfaye, whose life, as we’ve come to understand it, is splattered with semen and dusted with coke, it feels hilariously tame.
He elucidates this problem on “Reminder,” a ballad that uses honesty to make up for what it might lack in hooks. “I just won a new award for a kids’ show / Talking about her face humming off a bag of blow,” he sings, referencing “Can’t Feel My Face.” “I’m like, ‘Goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice / Goddamn, bitch, I am not a bleach boy.’” The chorus goes, “Every time we try to forget who I am, I’ll be right there to remind you who I am.” It’s hard to tell if he’s singing at himself, or his songwriters, or his label, or at us, but given that it is slotted directly in front of the aforementioned grouping of pure pop songs, its message can’t be mistaken for an accident.
Fans yearning for that trusty Weeknd™ brand will find things to like, too. The album is scattered with the sort of greyscale dirges he made his name on, like “Party Monster,” a rather useless staging of his typical tropes, or “All I Know,” which drones on about a busted relationship for what feels live forever. Each listener’s mileage may vary, but this sort of replaying of his hits feels almost openly perfunctory. “Six Feet Under” conceals that it’s a complete rewrite of his Future feature (EVOL’s “Low Life”) about as well as a small child ducking behind a couch cushion during hide-and-seek.
Still, there are more tracks to like than not, even stretching all the way to the end of the record. If you want Starboy to be a good album, it can be that. It may require some personal editing. It also may require that you ignore what even the most sterilized tracks seem to be about. “True Colors,” for instance, appears to equate a woman telling Tesfaye how many men she’s slept with as some sort of bastion of personal trust. On “I Feel It Coming,” the best of two Daft Punk collaborations, he seeks to console a woman left in emotional distress by a breakup, even though the rest of his music suggests he’ll leave her more broken than when he found her.
In an interview with Apple’s Zane Lowe, Tesfaye said that “Starboy” refers to the “more braggadocious character that we all have inside of us.” Frankly, it’s hard to distinguish whoever Starboy is from the sort of flippant lech Tesfaye has staked his entire career on, but that is the price of entry for the man’s music, take it or leave it. The tunes, I’d wager, are mostly still worth it, as “I Feel It Coming,” which bests just about anything on its collaborators’ Random Access Memories, makes clear. Positioned at its very end, the song closes Starboy with a shimmering sunset, and I won’t pretend it doesn’t feel good. We must savor the magic hour in the darkest months, anyway.