Stardom is not what I imagined when The Weeknd first emerged from the shadows all those years ago.
The stories he told weren’t the words of a pop star, the world he lived in didn’t resemble a Disney palace. He was a creature of the twilight, an underworld underdog that preferred to be an owl of the night and not some bird chirping at the rising sun. I didn’t see a future where The Weeknd would leave his beautiful madness for mainstream's cute, conservative party. Miraculously, he found the perfect middle ground to middle America in a movie that portrayed BDSM with the edge of safety scissors. 50 Shades Of Grey put him in a new underworld, a place where the mothers that you’d expect to detest him could be found hot and bothered, where their daughters found a new idol to admire that carried an air of mystery and cool. In this new wonderland, he adjusted his formula and found a way to go pop without completely losing what made him most captivating—being a child of the dark and debauch.
Beauty Behind The Madness is the album that declared Abel Tesfaye had arrived in the biggest way. It could be heard on the radio and seen on the Billboard charts—there was no denying that a new star was born. He sung on “Tell Your Friends,” “I’m that nigga with the hair singing about poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches, livin’ life so trill,” and that’s exactly who he was a year ago, but the announcement of Starboy showcased that the hair had been cut—possibly the biggest haircut change in music since Ludacris sent his braids into the rafters.
The new hair came with a new eponymous single. “Starboy” came with a different groove that you won’t find in his past: more upbeat; a shade of dark blue instead of bleak black. More than just the sound, it was the song's content—Abel gives insight into this new lavish life of his. Stardom changed his life, and those changes are clearly detailed like the coke that once sat on his glass tables.
Stardom is what I’m intrigued by. How does a man who once wore mystery like a cloak transition into a life as an ant underneath the world’s microscope? A change of hair, a change of sound; what other changes await? I fear the album’s length: 18 songs, more than any previous Weeknd album. I wonder if this immense collection of records are because he has more to say—a story to tell—or an attempt to flood the market with plenty of new music. There’s no doubt that this album will be successful, he’s a massive star with a massive base of fans who can’t get enough. But will this be his best album yet? I’m excited to find out.
Per usual, the 1 Listen review rules are still the same—I can not stop, rewind or fast-forward once the album begins. I’m sworn under oath to give my gut reaction and only my gut reaction, so help me Based God.
Let’s see how bright this starboy shines.
1. "Starboy" ft. Daft Punk
My gut reaction to this song after the first listen was unimpressed. But it’s the kind of song that you really can’t resist, it becomes this monkey that swing from your back. I love the production, it has a futuristic feeling, something that would be played during George Jetson's commute to Spacely Space Sprockets. The Weeknd can flow, I’m impressed by singers who can make the rapping/singing style grabbing. The bars might not be there but it does make for a good song. Weeknd’s mom goes to the grocery store to stunt, that is the greatest humble brag. “We don’t pray for love we just pray for cars,”there are some deep issues with materialism that he needs to confront. I know this one charted in over 20 countries or something but I’m surprised it wasn’t much bigger in the US. Feels like a hit, sounds like a hit, but it didn’t hit the bullseye.
2. "Party Monster"
This sounds rather menacing. I love his vocal tone on this, it grabs you like a cowboy lassoing a bull. Another rap/sing flow. Weeknd thanking the Lord while realizing he doesn’t know the girl’s name that sleeping next to him is peak rock star behavior. Catchy. I feel like this isn’t the song you play at 11:45, if you woke up alone and went straight to your computer to write an album review, but under different circumstances, I could enjoy this way more. There’s a level of persona in this bridge. It sounds like the face he’s making on the album cover. I’m interested, seeing where he takes this. “Party Monster” feels like a Weeknd club banger, something that he hasn’t had in the past.
3. "False Alarm"
A woman’s voice told him he’s paranoid at the end. Possibly the love interest of Starboy. I didn’t care much for this song without the music video. It’s by far one of the best videos of 2016, extremely eye-grabbing, intense, and full of action, but the song just doesn’t have the same quality. It’s explosive, especially when the beat drops, but this tempo doesn’t seem like Abel’s natural habitat. He’s really removing himself from the dark, gloomy soundscape of his past. I love the intensity, but overall, the song feels big, like a tank, and Abel has never been much of a tank driver. The transitions have been rather smooth, a quality that I appreciate about all his albums.
I like this. WOOOOOO DID HE JUST SAY HE WON A KID AWARD SINGING ABOUT COKE!? Best brag of 2016. “I am not a teen choice.” This is something you say in private, in the most personal group chats, but to say this on your new album, that’s ballsy. The "low mane" line is what I didn’t need in my life. Second verse flow. “Tell Your Friends” showed us that Abel could kick a flow, but so far we're four songs in and three of them have been heavily rap driven. I have to say, these songs all feel a few minutes too long. I’m not as interested by the end as I am at the beginning. Still, to admit that “Can’t Feel My Face” was about coke in such a way makes this song a keeper. S/O to The Weeknd for not being a role model; don’t be like him, kids.
Okay, this has a funky, electronic bounce. Abel is back to leaning on his singing. It’s rather interesting how clean his vocals are now. Sonically, it sounded a bit dirtier back in the day. I like this. I love the bounce. He sounds good, and this is rather catchy. Honestly, this would’ve been a better single than “Starboy.” It’s that hot and sexy dance number that could’ve exploded on dance floors. Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll love this one always and forever but intoxicated enough in the club and I’m guaranteed to be on the couch doing my best Weeknd impression.
Weeknd Dracula has appeared. His singing sounds like the entrancing, hypnotic, spellbinding singing that made “Earned It” one of those songs that feels like he’s singing directly to your soul. I just can’t get with this production. It has bounce, it has a bit of swing, but it also seems to submerge him. Again, a tempo that’s far too upbeat, and far too electronic. I’m not a huge follower of Daft Punk but it seems like music from their repertoire, even more so than the song that featured them. Vocally, I’m loving this performance. But this beat is keeping me from enjoying the whole experience like being at the movie theater seeing an excellent movie and someone’s Dennis The Menace is kicking the back of your seat. Loving the bridge. I don’t know how often I’ll return to this one.
7. "True Colors"
Oh!!! That deep bass. Now, I suddenly want to hear the Weeknd and Timbo get it in. This is slower. He has to sing about some serious heartbreak on this. Weeknd isn’t the greatest singer, but he has a voice that shines and doesn’t need much production around it. Make it minimal, and allow that alluring tone to shine. This is really good. I need more of Weeknd just tapping into his inner R&B star. I’m realizing, there’s an absence of drugs. Not in the lyrics, but in the sound. This album doesn’t feel like I’m on Xanax or going through withdrawals. Surprisingly clean. Keeper. This is the true color of his music.
8. "Stargirl Interlude" ft. Lana Del Rey
Honesty hour: I’m not a big fan of Lana Del Rey. I like that one music video that stars her and A$AP Rocky, but I couldn’t name a song of hers to save your life. Her voice doesn’t snatch my soul from the depths of my chest. My heart doesn’t race like a galloping stallion when she sings. This song has not moved me at all. But it’s good to hear a woman’s voice, there’s a Stargirl in this Starboy’s life. If only she was more interesting.
9. "Sidewalks" ft. Kendrick Lamar
This is a beat. This is electric. “From homeless to Forbes list.” Weeknd is having a “Tell Your Friends” moment where the rapping is just perfect. Perfect for him. I hate that he’s singing this hook with Auto-Tune. This is not necessary. Not necessary at all. I’m loving this blues guitar. Kendrick Lamar has arrived. Kendrick has more flows than his label mates, more flows than Jay Z got problems, more flows than bees in Beyoncé's beehive. Big Sean is somewhere not happy about this breathless flow. I’d have an asthma attack trying to keep up with this machine of a man. He always brings something to the track that makes you want to rewind and hear it again. Maybe overwhelming, at times unnecessary, but never a bore. Oh Weeknd with the high note to end the song. This is a cool one, will revisit.
10. "Six Feet Under"
10 more tracks!? I’m feeling a bit disinterested. Like the good has been good, but not enough spectacular moments. There hasn’t been enough diversity in both style and subject to keep my mind from wondering. Okay, this hook just brought me back. I like the beat. Is Future on this one? There goes Future! Some songs you can just hear and know he’s about to spill some Actavis on the beat. This feels like “Low Life” part two. I need Abel to go get him a good, wholesome church girl. He has terrible taste in women. The muses to his music always sound like they would not make great company at Thanksgiving dinner. Especially if they want to kill him. Starboy is living like Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
11. "Love To Lay"
Love the rhythm. “Love To Lay” could’ve been on Kiss Land. Reminds me of “Belong To The World.” This might be the first Weeknd album where more dancing is done than drugs. There are some grooves on here. He should’ve just committed to making a condensed album full of upbeat dance records. The electric guitar at the end is a cool outro but very little chance I’ll revisit this one.
12. "A Lonely Night"
Zoned out for a second wondering who his barber might be. Can Weeknd just walk into the barbershop? The album might not be dead but the long album might have to be put in the grave. This song isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have any outstanding qualities that truly puts a spotlight on it. There just seems to be too many ideas he wanted to execute, too many sounds he wanted to explore, and I can tip my hat to his ambition but I’m already feeling that this album should have been cut into two halves. Not a bad song, but not a special song either. Maybe on a lonely night, it’ll speak to me.
Attention, gain back my attention. Slow build up. I’ve long stopped trying to put this story together. But it’s interesting that he went from singing about a lonely night to singing about a woman who is an attention seeker. I do like this song the way he details how fame, stardom, and celebrity make it incredibly hard to balance a regular, functioning relationship. What the hell did he just do to his voice? This effect was not necessary. Sounded like R2D2's batteries are dying and he's trying to speak his final words. It was a keeper until he decided to butcher a good moment.
14. "Ordinary Life"
“Heaven in her mouth got a hell of a tongue,” is the best opening line on the album. Weeknd predicts an early death like James Dean, the living fast, dying with a beautiful corpse ideology. Finally, a bit of blood pumping. There’s a lot of interesting imagery being told on this song. “Devil in my lap, cross on my neck” juxtaposes the good and evils of his life right now. The songs are much shorter now, but he’s also telling more of a story now. I was almost asleep, but now I’m trying to figure out where the story is going from here. I’d consider this one a possible keeper.
15. "Nothing Without You"
Assuming the Starboy has lost his Stargirl and is dealing with the withdrawal. But, knowing The Weeknd, this could be about drugs. Loving his passion. This is a rare Weeknd song, not the kind of song he writes, he tends to be the one they long for, not the one displaying the longing. Rather mature of him. Not bad at all to be honest. The songs on this album either jump out at the listener with the force of a rhino ramming into your car or fade into the background like Jay Z after The Black Album.
16. "All I Know" ft. Future
This might be the longest album that I’ve heard in some time with minimum features. All Weeknd albums don’t have many features, I wonder if that’s because he just doesn’t like working with others. Anti-social Abel. This one is another slow builder. Heavy production, the kind of trap banger that is perfect for a singer. Future and Abel might be a better combo than Future and Drake. It doesn’t sound forced when the two are together. Instead of compromising they find a common ground to be their canvas. There’s a long bridge in the middle with Weeknd doing a seductive cooing. Future! Did he say he sleeps with one eye open? Isn’t that kinda hard to do on lean? I wouldn’t mind another Future album. If he sounds this good. I wish the word "thotty" would die, it just seems so dirty. Future buying titties after one night stands!? I would hate to be his accountant. You know what, this is taking leaving money on the dresser to a whole 'nother level. Can you repossess titties? Take them back with the receipt? Just in case he falls on hard times.
17. "Die For You"
Future might be the oddest, most interesting rapper, even more so than Young Thug. There are moments on this album that are more interesting than thinking about all the busty blonds Future bought titties. This is one of them. It’s all the songs with slower, more enthralling production. Abel is singing his ass off. Did The Weeknd just make a wedding song? Is that something that can happen!? This is the same man who made “The Bird Pt. 1" and "Pt. 2.” I had every intention to play “Can’t Feel My Face” during my bachelor party, and “The Morning” during my honeymoon, but he wasn’t someone I’d expect to be a part of my wedding reception playlist, but this song sounds like wedding bells. You know, that’s if you believe marriage is an eternal thing, if you abide by that whole, “until death do us part” part. But I believe that’s optional in 2016.
18. "I Feel It Coming" ft. Daft Punk
The second song to feature Daft Punk. Wait a second, did he just channel MJ? Sounds like he’s moonwalking in the studio. How do you end the album like this!? He had songs like this in the stash the entire time? Vocally he sounds incredible, and this beat has the perfect groove where he isn’t overwhelmed. Is this on the radio? It has to be on the radio. Beautiful. This is full crossover music. It’s like a ladder to the top of the pop charts. If he would’ve given us 10 of these I would be singing his highest praises. Give me a Weeknd/Daft Punk album in 2018. For the culture.
Final (first listen) thoughts on Starboy:
That was a rather long journey. I need Abel to understand he’s not a long album artist, and he should come to terms that his art is of the 'less is more' variety. Someone on Twitter recently brought to my attention that the industry being dominated by singles/playlists will lead to artists creating albums where you have possible singles that help tell a story. I see that in Starboy—an album full of singles that is meant to also encompass a bigger theme. Views has that quality to it, same as Anti, but neither one of those albums tell a cohesive narrative.
Starboy has a story, but it isn’t told with the cinematic focus of good kid, m.A.A.d city or Lemonade. The Weeknd is aware of our times, aware of the change in tides; Starboy is guaranteed to dominate various playlists and radio stations, but what will make Starboy commercially successful also makes it a hard body of work to digest. There’s too much: It feels long-winded, repetitive, and at times just boring. I see myself taking the better songs and leaving the rest where I found them—which is pretty much how the current playlist culture operates.
Abel is still finding his pop legs, the growing pains are obvious, but the high moments show that he’s growing into a mighty pop force. Starboy shows he isn’t stuck in the past, he doesn’t care to be the artist he once was, and that’s commendable. If you want the old Weeknd, well, you’ll just have to buy or stream his old albums. Starboy as a whole isn’t an album that I’ll be returning to often, but considering the way he’s about to be all over radio and playlists, the music will be inescapable.
The old Abel is there, the music still a has a strong sense of self-pleasure, self-indulgence, and a sprinkle of wealth and paranoia. He is still the bacchanal party animal, the charming singer of the shadows, but he’s taking a big step into the spotlight. If Beauty Behind The Madness was his pop arrival, Starboy is his declaration that he is here to stay, whether you like it or not.
By Yoh, aka StarYoh, aka @Yoh31.