The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ album has landed and I’ve got it on repeat

The Weeknd has been making waves since way back in 2011, when he dropped House of Balloons as a free download to great critical acclaim. The mixtape’s dark, alt-R&B sound was somehow gritty yet smooth at the same time, so listenable and yet nothing like conventional pop music. In those days, the man the entire world now knows as Abel Tesfaye was an anonymous enigma. Fast forward five years and The Weeknd’s third studio albumStarboy, which landed today, has been one of the most eagerly anticipated records of 2016.

Luckily for The Weeknd devotees, this 18 track behemoth doesn’t disappoint. Prior to today, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Interest levels have been piqued pre-release by the drip-dropping of four tracks off of the album, including title track “Starboy” – a collaboration with Daft Punk. Given how radio-ready “Starboy” sounds, we were a little nervous as to whether the album would retain the roughness that makes Tesfaye’s music so unique. Sure, it’s a good song, but the essence of dissent and debauchery that made the early stuff so appealing appeared to have been diluted to make it more popularly palatable. On reflection, there was nothing to worry about, Starboy is every bit as sexy, as soulful and as packed full with banger after banger as 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness.

The track after “Starboy” is “Party Monster”: a dark, synth filled track co-written by Lana Del Ray that features the smooth, at times heavily processed, vocals typical to Tesfaye. Here, The Weeknd once again returns to his favourite themes – intoxication and women – in this deliciously sordid song; the “bump a line” lyric is even accompanied by a sniffing sound. The catchy hook “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name” complements the production’s heavy base and looming guitar perfectly. “Reminder” is more of the same, but in a good way. The electro-R&B sound is slick and silky, with memorable melodies and lyrics that encapsulate the the amusingly contradictory nature of The Weeknd’s popularity: “I just won a new award for a kids show/ Talking ’bout a face coming off a bag a blow/ I’m like goddamn b*tch I am not a Teen Choice” is an obvious reference to the Teen Choice award he won for the 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Tesfaye is one of the only hugely successful mainstream artists at the moment who isn’t conventionally cookie cutter, and it’s this dichotomy that characterises him as an artist. The Weeknd oscillates between pop-gloss and grit, between futility and meaning and between exposure and mystery. His smooth, soulful voice, which has so often been compared to that of Michael Jackson (who he continuously credits as a key influence and whose impact is unequivocally audible in “Rocking”), almost obscures the fact that, more often than not, he’s singing sexually explicit lyrics laden with references to drug use, with more than a small side of brooding desperation and nihilism. “All I Know”, featuring the rapper Future, is (another!) standout track that typifies The Weeknd’s ability to make seemingly polar pairings work. The track is a kind of confessional lament-cum-club banger, the potentially depressing lyrics are offset by the heavy sub bass line typical to the trap music that has dominated the American hip-hop scene recently. It’s the kind of song you want to blast at full volume while driving a Bentley Mulsanne.

Much of his subject matter used to be the reserve of rappers, and yet The Weeknd has now pioneered a kind of sub-genre of R&B that feels uncompromisingly authentic. “Six Feet Under” is a case in point. The worn out tropes of “b*tches and money” somehow feel subversive again, thanks to the experimental production and Tesfaye’s crooning vocal. Where this kind of content would usually feel sleazy or sordid, The Weeknd manages to get away with it; the lyrics feel like an uncompromisingly realistic reflection of his reality, and the aggressiveness is tempered by the smoothness of his sound.

Pop music that truly speaks to people is a rare thing these days, but this album is so magnetising because it feels so distinctly personal. “Sidewalks” featuring Kendrick Lamar details Tesfaye’s rise to the top, from “homeless to Forbes list”, and is illustrative of Starboy’s credentials as a cohesive body of work. While the unique productions overlaid with eerie soulful vocal are of course a unifying thread, the narrative of Tesfaye’s grappling with success is at work throughout the hour long album. In an age where popular music has become increasingly bland in order to appeal to as many people as possible, his music is vividly honest – it’s not just about getting drunk in a club, it’s about the horrors of hedonism too, from come downs to regret to psychological turmoil.

He’s cut his hair, broken up with Bella Hadid and has burst out into the mainstream, but Starboy is still The Weeknd doing what he does best. It’s a rare thing for an artist to be able to shape popular music, instead of being passively shaped by it (Tesfaye even managed to make his explicitness mainstream with “Earned It”, the single from the film 50 Shades of Grey). The album’s title is a nod to David Bowie, who Tesfaye calls “the ultimate inventor”, and this reference is telling in terms of his aspirations. “Starboy” is a solid sign that The Weeknd, like Bowie, is pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be “popular”. Whether his legacy will be half as enduring remains to be seen.

Originally published at GQ.co.uk (25 November 2016)

The Pirelli Calendar 2017 strips 15 beautiful women bare

This year’s eagerly anticipated calendar by Peter Lindbergh is all about exposing the women it features, but not in the way you’d expect.

Back in 1964, the Pirelli Calendar was just a bit of eye-candy, kindly provided by the Italian tyre maker to be hung on the walls of car mechanic garages far and wide. Forty-four editions later, and the trade calendar has become a kind of cultural barometer through which societal perceptions of beauty are reflected, examined and contested.

This year’s calendar, presented on Tuesday in Paris, is perhaps the farthest away from the original format as you could possibly get, with not a naked bottom or heaving bosom in sight. The world famous photographer Peter Lindbergh made the 2017 calendar about what he calls a “different type of sexy” to “high heels and bikinis”. 2016’s calendar, shot by Annie Leibovitz, represented the first leap away from the carefully curated, impossibly glamorous images of half-naked models for Pirelli, and the 2017 edition is in a similar vein.

Sorry gentlemen, but this year’s nakedness is purely figurative. The 14 internationally renowned actresses – hand-picked by Lindbergh, who believes them to be “the most talented women in the world” – are presented in minimal makeup and fully clothed. Instead of focusing on perfect bodies, Lindbergh conveys his idea of natural beauty and femininity by “stripping down to the very soul of the sitters, who thus become more nude than naked.”

Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Charlotte Rampling, Lea Seydoux, Uma Thurman, Alicia Vikander, Kate Winslet, Robin Wright and Zhang Ziyi, as well as a professor of Political Theory from Moscow University who Lindbergh met at a dinner, are presented across forty black and white photographs that are the very antithesis from the digitally enhanced, commercial images we see everywhere today.

This calendar is still at it’s core, a celebration of beauty, but about what Lindbergh sees as a “different beauty, more real and truthful – not manipulated by commercial interests”. Bemoaning the “blank faces” of the the “retouched, photoshopped woman you see everywhere today”, Lindbergh chose to present these actresses, some of whom are notably older than Pirelli’s previous women and all of whom in his eyes “stand up for something”, in a completely natural, unpolished and un-airbrushed format, and the results are pretty spectacular.

2017’s images are more sensual than overtly sexy – the calendar as a whole feels like the artistic equivalent of waking up next to a beautiful woman. You know that moment, when a woman is wearing no makeup and is at her most natural and vulnerable? The subjects have been captured in exactly that kind of a guise. The images are strikingly honest and stunningly personal; Lindbergh was all about getting the actresses to be themselves. Penélope Cruz spoke of how different these portraits are from any other photos you’ll see of the 14 actresses because their inherent intimacy: “it’s just us, we don’t have this other character protecting or covering us.”

From Cruz, who has photographed in New York after a knackering night of child care, to the image of Kate Winslet’s hands, which celebrates the grace in getting old, the kind of beauty celebrated here is a far cry from your typical glossy shoot. Nor are they anything like what Helen Mirren calls “red carpet faces” – the actresses all stare down the lens with unflinching eye contact. The images are sensuous because they feel so real, from the carnal close up of one actress’s lips to the wide shot of the House of Cards actress Robin Wright, it’s the sort of sexiness that we come across with the women we interact with in everyday life that’s celebrated here.

By rejecting impossible beauty standards, Pirelli has shown once again why, despite the fact that you can’t even buy the iconic calendar, it remains relevant today. Speaking at the press conference today, Helen Mirren argued that the 2017 calendar reflects a “cultural shift” towards widening conceptions of female beauty and spoke of her hope that young women could find solace from societal pressures in this year’s calendar. In the same way we’ve been trying to redefine masculinity in the modern day by asking “how to be a man”, this calendar is about restrictive notions of femininity and of female beauty. Lindbergh’s rejection of popular representations of beauty emancipates the women it features from rigid cultural expectations in a move Uma Thurman calls an act of “human empowerment”.

Speaking at the launch, Nicole Kidman reasoned that “being yourself is the epitome of confidence and power” and that’s precisely what this year’s photographs are all about. In our age and appearance obsessed society, Lindbergh’s cry against “the terror of perfection and youth” is one of resonance. It might not be the kind of Pirelli calendar we’re used to, but this is a format we can certainly get on board with.

This piece was originally published on GQ.co.uk