In a meteoric chain of events, spider-haired Abel Tesfaye has risen from cult favorite mixtape king to a superstar who has received comparisons to Michael Jackson. Considering the circumstances, it’s not hard to see why. R&B and rock only grow denser and more political with each day, but The Weeknd remains committed to creating trashy, shallow music and, thank god for that.
If anything, The Weeknd’s candy-pop odes to ennui are the most accurate portrayal of the 2010’s, reflecting the numbness that arises from information overload and blaring social media better than any other artist besides Drake. Rather than break from these themes, The Weeknd’s first “post-fame” record, Starboy is a refinement, upping the budget and bringing his hedonistic worldview into sharper focus.
Opening and ending with Daft Punk produced tracks, Starboy learns from these collaborations by progressing in a more electronic direction then his previous records. Contrary to what one may think, this continued slide towards plasticization works in The Weeknd’s favor as it puts his tales of dulled modernism in their proper context. On his previous records, songs like “Party Monster” and “Six Feet Under” would’ve been as sludgy as molasses, but here their clubby and fun, allowing the dangerous allure of Abel’s reality to truly resonate.
The real key to Starboy is its wider musical range in comparison to his earlier releases. Second single “False Alarm” bursts with an aggressive surge learned from EDM, while “Sidewalks” is drenched in a wonderful layer of auto-tuned. Although he attempts to recapture the nostalgic post-disco of “I Can’t Feel my Face” on “Rockin,” the best throwback here is “Secrets,” a straight up New Wave track wherein Abel affects a synthpop monotone and samples The Romantics for a smart piece of retro-pop. Thankfully, the constant stylistic change-ups aren’t jarring since they stick close to the goth-y ambiance that is The Weeknd’s stock-in-trade. Taken as a whole, Starboy comes across as a concept record portraying the worldview he’s sung about his whole career, a complete immersion in a zombified rave in some cyberpunk club wherein everyone is drinking purple drank cut with the nectar of the gods.
There are more than a few nitpicks, most naggingly, the bloated 18-track length that keeps it from being as tight as it could be. Even more disappointing is Future’s cameo on “All I Know” which should be a narcoticized showstopper but instead sounds awkward as he struggles to ride the beat with his usual gracefulness. But all quibbles aside, Starboy demonstrates that The Weeknd is an artist that captures his era better than anyone else, a truly modern pop star that embodies all the musical and digital trends of the decade.