Alt-R&B singer and OVO signee The Weeknd, who rose to popularity with incredible speed after the release of his Grammy-nominated 2015 album Beauty Behind The Madness, wastes no time putting out his next album. Somewhat predictably if you’ve heard a Weeknd song before, it spends a lot of time relishing in his newfound success. As the two artists who most resemble a modern Michael Jackson release projects a week apart from each other, The Weeknd adapts to the sound even more, seeking to dominate in the pop lane that made him famous with tracks like “Can’t Feel My Face”. The album incorporates more electronic elements, and sounds like Jackson’s Off The Wall era at times.
However, the album’s 18-track runtime spanning over an hour does attempt to keep some aspects of the dark, mysterious persona that introduced us to The Weeknd’s music years before becoming an inescapable pop force, and their combination with the Max Martinesque tracks here makes for a rather disjointed album. The tracks are individually strong, but together as a cohesive unit, Starboy stands as a step down from Beauty Behind The Madness.
The Weeknd wears his collaborations and influences on his sleeve on this project. Quite a few of these tracks, most notably “Rockin'”, sound rather similar to his recent collaboration with Disclosure, “Nocturnal”, blending his falsetto vocals with the rising popularity of house music in the mainstream. He even incorporates Francis and the Lights’ completely novel sound on standout track “Attention”. The pair recently collaborated on Cashmere Cat’s track “Wild Love”. This is the popular sound, and he adapts to it quite well — I just wish we had more of a presence of the material he truly excels at (Think “Wicked Games” from masterful 2011 mixtape House of Balloons).
On the production front, The Weeknd recruits mostly the same team as his previous albums (Ben Billions, Doc McKinney, Mano, etc.), with a large contingent of high-profile collaborators from the better side of pop music to ease him into the world-dominating pop star role he is inheriting. Electronic masterminds Daft Punk and Diplo, Metro Boomin, the man who never runs out of great trap beats, rising star with a signature sound Cashmere Cat, and crown princes of the charts Max Martin and Benny Blanco all make appearances here, all adapting surprisingly well to the Weeknd’s style. He truly has one of those voices that can sound good over anything, lack of variation between performances aside.
A lot of these tracks sound the same, but some aspects of the formula still really work – his songs that resemble smash hit “The Hills” are his best, featuring a speedier hip-hop-style flow and a dynamic and danceable hi-hat beat like on “Reminder”. The Weeknd picks his collaborators well – The Daft Punk tracks here, “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming”, are some of the best pop tracks in recent memory, and it’s great to hear the robots’ harmonizing and cheerful instrumental closing out the album. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Sidewalks” is — no surprise — an absolute showstopper and technical showcase which raises the track’s stock considerably.
Cashmere Cat’s primary production credit on “True Colors” highlights the better aspects of The Weeknd’s voice while sounding like one of Cashmere Cat’s better songs, the staccato synths undeniably sounding like his style. Abel also links up with Lana Del Rey once again, and they really are the perfect match for each other in their cynical and nihilist perspective on the world, which brings me to this – at least The Weeknd still writes his own songs! Many of these could still only be his work, although some punchlines can get as cheesy as his label boss Drake: take “Got that Hannibal, silence of the Lambo” from “Reminder”.
On an 18-track album, however, there is significant burnout from including similar tracks. It is the same problem many DJs have when making full-length albums – the similar style of pounding beats and overwhelming synths does not translate well outside of a party. Tracks are also frequently brought down by some uninspired hooks that likely could have been cut from the album, and inexplicable use of Auto-Tune. He doesn’t do anything creative with it and he has proven himself to be great in live performances, so the usage here doesn’t make any sense.
People have transitioned to a pure pop album from a different sound much smoother than this in the past. The sound of the album is fine, it just isn’t what he’s best at. The project never really commits to a solidified sound either, even on the clearly divided two sides of the album (pop tracks, and material reminiscent of his older work) the style jumps around a lot – and then there are complete outliers like polarizing punk track “False Alarm”. It all makes for an extremely disjointed and confusing album.
“I Feel It Coming” shows that The Weeknd has some serious potential to create excellent music as a pop artist with the right people in the room. The problem here might come from using most of the team from his past in his attempt to transition to becoming a pop star. The disjointedness really makes the album a frustrating listen, and I enjoyed an album with quite a few very strong tracks less than I should. Still, aspects of Abel’s artistry are still on full display here and I have full confidence he can figure it out in the future.
Favourite Tracks: I Feel It Coming, Sidewalks, True Colors, Nothing Without You, Starboy
Least Favourite Track: All I Know