I get the strong impression The Weeknd never thought he'd become famous.
Admittedly, all of this is guesswork, but if you go back through his early records, it became clear that despite how influential his sound was becoming and the cosigns behind him, he had his own sound, style, and distinctive lane, and considering how bleak and graphic that lane was, he probably never expected to crossover. Sure, you could make arguments that he was trending towards more of a pop sound on Beauty Behind The Madness, but also keep in mind that despite having two songs go to #1, the biggest hit of that record wasn't 'Can't Feel My Face' but 'The Hills'. Not the song where he embraced his inner Michael Jackson, but the track where he ripped away the veneer to reveal the toxic, self-destructive self-loathing that lurked at the base of it. In comparison to obvious singles like 'Can't Feel My Face' or even the stronger 'In The Night', it was a hard left turn... and as of now, it's his biggest hit.
And I get the feeling this wasn't lost on The Weeknd, and if we were going to reward his dark impulses, that seemed to be enough of an endorsement for him to plow into even weirder and more experimental territory - hell, everyone who has watched Billboard BREAKDOWN has seen how much praise I gave 'False Alarm' for its manic, darkwave-inspired sound and style. And when The Weeknd cited his inspirations were The Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, and Prince... well, my only surprise is that he didn't cite more gothic acts, given how obvious the influence has been for years. But at the same time, I didn't expect the album to completely fly into left field - credits from Kendrick Lamar, Future, Daft Punk, and Lana Del Rey proved he was keeping his feet pretty close to the mainstream, and that's before you dig into the production credits. In short, The Weeknd has an institution of modern pop songwriters and producers behind him, this was not going to be allowed to get that weird. Still, I had liked 'Starboy' and I had loved 'False Alarm', this record was easily one of my most anticipated in 2016 - so did it deliver?
Well, let me put it like this: on the song 'Reminder', The Weeknd shows outright contempt for getting a Teen Choice award - which would make complete sense, given how adult and relentlessly nihilistic his material has been... only to turn around and for the majority of Starboy make his least experimental and risky record of his career. At least Beauty Behind The Madness, for all of its wild inconsistencies, was willing to plumb back into the darkness to balance its more poppy flavour - and yet with only a few choice exceptions Starboy tilts even further away from the darker edge. Forget the bite and firepower that came with Thursday or Echoes Of Silence or any real shot at experimentation lyrically or instrumentally, this is a much more tepid release and I'm not remotely convinced it connects - and you all thought Kiss Land was watered down. Now none of that means that Starboy is bad - again, it's got a couple great tracks that I really did enjoy that probably save it - but while the instrumental tone might be more even, the level of quality certain is not, which to me smacks of having entirely too many people involved and diluting the process in order to maximize the hits.
And to explain why, we're going to flip things around and start with the thematic arc of this record, most of which focuses on The Weeknd's newfound celebrity and success - which, as I mentioned earlier, this was not something he expected, but of course he's going to ride it out and reap the rewards. Now you would think - naturally, like I did - that it would lead to even wilder, greater heights of debauchery... but instead we get the opposite, which to be fair you could have seen coming in his framing as early as Beauty Behind The Madness. His self-proclaimed damnation he's always considered a natural consequence of his lifestyle scrabbling to the top, but now that he's there and looking down, the emotional dynamic is much less reckless and harsh - still paranoid and somewhat clinical, but now that he feels he can show a softer side, he's doing so. But throughout the course of this record, it becomes abundantly clear he's not entirely comfortable living in the world his music has shaped - his darkness defined his life, and I don't think he's entirely on board with it becoming the norm. You see that implied in tracks like 'Secrets' and 'True Colors', where he wants the girl to give up her darker secrets the same way he has, or how the girl's fear of him on 'All I Know' can be unnerving, or the odd sense of surprise that runs through 'Love to Lay' where girls seek casual sex the same way he did. Of course, the larger arc is his continued self-flagellation, where just like on Beauty Behind The Madness he's extremely hesitant to enter any sort of deeper connection despite the girls who want it, but by the final four songs on the record, unlike the end of his previous album with 'Angel' where he did let her go, this time he embraces that love.
And yes, that is emotional growth and maturity and a defined shift away from the nihilism that's always flowed through The Weeknd's material - a tad hyperbolic with his proclamations of dying and killing for this girl on 'Die For You', but he's heading in the right direction. But this came at a price, and this is the first big problem of this album: the shift in language. Even when The Weeknd's nihilism got tiresome and fell towards similar topics, his poetry was often good enough to capture the details and paint more of a picture about his life, his actions, and the women around him. But here... outside of the title track and 'False Alarm', we really don't get as much detail even compared to the last album. Many of these songs feel underwritten, with repetition instead of detail, to even where retracing the come-up on 'Sidewalks' feels like material we've seen before, even with a pretty decent Kendrick verse. It feels like the majority of the lyrical details was used up by the time we hit 'Rockin' five songs in, with 'Six Feet Under' pulling from his much stronger collaboration with Beyonce '6 Inch' from earlier this year in the content even as it samples 'Low Life', his collaboration with Future! We get some additional detail on 'Ordinary Life', where the excess juxtaposed with nihilism slips back in - including apt references to religious iconography, David Carradine and James Dean - but from there it just seems to lack distinguishing detail or flair. It raises the uncomfortable question that if you strip the nihilism and bleak debauchery out of The Weeknd's music what you have left... and sadly, I'm not getting much here. It also makes some of the guest performances make less sense: I obviously get the parallel using Future on 'All I Know', but The Weeknd is pushing out of his self-loathing recklessness, where it's clear Future's still reveling in it as much as he can. And Lana Del Rey's presence is even more tenuous now - her attempts at cooing on 'Stargirl Interlude' are godawful, but she also seems like the sort of girl that The Weeknd would leave behind for the stable relationship that he now wants.
Of course, this leaves Daft Punk and The Weeknd himself, and this is where we have to get into the actual music. And for the record, while the autotune on songs like 'Sidewalks' can be blatant, I wasn't bothered by it - he's using it in the same way Kanye did, for deflection and internalizing emotion. And Daft Punk easily deliver two of the tightest grooves on the record thanks to the title track and 'I Feel It Coming', the latter with its liquid, 80s inspired major synths and slightly more textured percussion is probably the brightest song The Weeknd has ever recorded. And sure, it shows obvious influence from Michael Jackson, but I definitely wish The Weeknd brought the same sort of edge and dramatic intensity Michael had in his delivery and instrumentation. And what's exasperating is that The Weeknd has proven plenty capable of doing it - 'False Alarm' is the best example and by far the best song here, mostly because it actually has an edge courtesy of the wiry guitars, sharper beat, and darkwave vibe - but the thematic arc has also pushed The Weeknd's delivery and production into softer territory. I like 'I Feel It Coming', but there's nowhere near the same sense of dramatic urgency to that track as it coasts through a good groove. But beyond that? This album starts off with promise with 'Starboy' and the harsher synths of 'Party Monster' that breaks into a bassy trap beat, or the bleak flat keys and firm bass of 'Reminder' against the hi-hat - and of course, 'False Alarm'. But as soon as we get to 'Rockin' the album slips into a much cleaner vibe that's much less interesting from the reverb-saturated yet inert 90s house vibes of 'Rockin' or 'Secrets' - sorry, but that guitar and Tears For Fears interpolation isn't fooling me - to the drippy chimes-touched R&B vibes of 'True Colors' that The Weeknd would have scoffed at five years ago! Sure, the wheedling guitar textures on 'Sidewalks', 'Six Feet Under' courtesy of returning producer Doc McKinney were definitely appreciated, but by the time we get to the limp Max Martin-produced blocky 80s disco of 'Love to Lay' or 'A Lonely Night', or the autotuned crooning and pitch-shifting of 'Attention', you start seriously missing the textured, grimy bite of Illangelo, whose production is sorely missed. And until Daft Punk pull things together for a low key finale and outside of the darker bite of 'Ordinary Life', the rest of this record feels like a slog, with vocal production quality that's all over the place and only barely distracts from the washed out, bassy-heavy beats and dreary synths.
Look folks, I'm not going to mince words here: I was really excited for this record coming off 'False Alarm' and the title track, and yet... this was a disappointment, and gives me a bad feeling going forward surrounding The Weeknd's artistic direction. I can appreciate stepping out of melodramatic nihilism, it definitely shows The Weeknd growing emotionally as an artist... but he does realize that he can tell stories with detail and flair without relying on that, right? He does realize he can give his music an edge or more of a pulse, add back some of that dramatic swell that he's always had a knack for controlling? Without that greater sense of momentum, this record, especially on its back half, becomes flabby with more filler than can be justified. Now again, there are enough good moments to push this record a light 6/10, but if you're a fan of The Weeknd, especially of Thursday and Echoes of Silence and you were a little put off by Beauty Behind The Madness, this record will be hard to justify. Otherwise... I'd give it a listen or two, but The Weeknd is capable of being better than complacent. On 'Sidewalks' he challenged those who supposedly 'made' him to replace him - if he's not careful, he will be.