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)