Starboy isn't a quiet affair, but neither is it actually that good.
Following the success of 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness – which spawned three massive singles in ‘Can’t Feel My Face,’ ‘In The Night,’ and ‘The Hills,’ Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, returned to the scene last week with empty vessel Starboy. At 68 minutes, this 18-track LP is bloated in the extreme, with little payoff for all the build-up.
Compromise seems to be the headline for Starboy. Gone is the vision and drive Tesfaye previously showed, replaced by a collection of tracks that seem very much designed by committee. This isn’t a concept album, but the titular character is woven throughout its tapestry. It’s pointless attempting to work out what Tesfaye is trying to say with this body of work, as they’re so much confusion and halfway housery that he ends up saying nothing at all.
It’s hard to believe the opening track is The Weeknd’s biggest UK hit to date, peaking at number two and having spent its entire 10 weeks on the charts inside the top ten. ‘Starboy‘ is by no means a radical departure from the likes of ‘Can’t Feel My Face,’ but Daft Punk’s reliably pop-friendly off-kilter influences may well temporarily convince listeners otherwise. Production quality is one of the most variable factors on this album, which only makes it clearer how accomplished the French duo are. From ‘Party Monster’ and ‘Rockin” to ‘Ordinary Life’ and ‘Nothing Without You,’ Starboy is littered with dreary filler tracks. Perhaps the worst offender, however, is first-third yawnfest ‘Reminder’ – devoid of any kind of passion whatsoever and mind-numbingly formulaic, this is probably the most singularly pointless inclusion on the whole record, which is saying something.
On a happier note, there are occasional rousing moments. Thrillingly driving and frenetic, ‘False Alarm’ is an early highlight, while ‘A Lonely Night’ makes an excellent accompaniment to the staccato ‘Love To Lay,’ even if it is resolutely B-side material. In fact, ‘A Lonely Night’ and ‘Secrets’ are the only distinctly average tracks on Starboy, with the latter fusing the best of Beauty Behind The Madness‘ R&B stylings with the lyrical banality of the tracks that surround it.
The greatest success of Starboy is its finale ‘I Feel It Coming,’ another Daft Punk-heavy entry. Bookending the album with its two most grandstanding pieces is a shrewd move, leaving a stronger impression than is perhaps deserved. ‘I Feel It Coming’ is so far detached from the remainder of Starboy that it may as well be a Daft Punk track featuring The Weeknd’s vocals and it’s all the better for it. It’s a toss-up between this and ‘False Alarm’ for the title of the album’s strongest instalment, but no others come close. Lush production helps the closer to transcend the drabness pervading the rest of the album to culminate in something very special, and probably the strongest track XO, Tesfaye’s own label, has released so far.
Just proving the inverse relationship between an album’s number of collaborators and its number of listenable tracks, Starboy seems to have been produced by every man and his dog – I assume my invite was lost in the post. Prominent names featuring in the credits include Lana Del Rey, who lends her vocals as the Stargirl, adding to that thing The Weeknd tried to get going last year when he said that she’s always the girl in his songs and he’s the boy in hers or something. Also showing up are Future, recycling his own 2016 Weeknd collaboration ‘Low Life’ into two ‘new’ ‘songs,’ Labrinth, Kendrick Lamar, and someone who goes by the name of Cashmere Cat who you probably won’t have heard of. This Norwegian producer has added his expertise to tracks as diverse as Charli XCX’s ‘Break The Rules,’ Tory Lanez’s ‘Luv,’ and Kanye West’s ‘Wolves,’ and here lends his talents to four of the dullest tracks: ‘True Colors,’ ‘Attention,’ ‘All I Know,’ and ‘Die For You.’ Putting it frankly, it’s not the most encouraging bunch and it’s telling that Ali Payami and Mano, two producers who helped craft some of The Weeknd’s biggest hits of 2015, only contribute to a handful of tracks between them.
All in all, Starboy is a very conflicted body of work, doing little that is completely remarkable and plodding for two-thirds of its running time. With 18 tracks in its arsenal, that’s not the most encouraging statistic. What this era is about seems as much of a mystery to its creators as its audience. In 2016, releasing insubstantial music isn’t necessarily career-ending (see also: The Chainsmokers) but, largely, The Weeknd’s latest doesn’t even make decent background music.
The one saving grace is the beautiful visual side to the album, particularly the ‘False Alarm’ video, but you don’t even need to scratch the surface of Starboy to see how thinly-spread it is. Lyrics as crass as those opening ‘Ordinary Life’ are part and parcel of The Weeknd’s package, but the general aftertaste of this record is of watering down, with previous anonymity replaced by facelessness. It’s not inconceivable that most of these tracks could appear on fellow Canadian twenty-something Justin Bieber’s next album these days, which shows how far things have come. Inevitably Starboy will mean something to someone, but at the moment that someone doesn’t appear to be The Weeknd.
Starboy is out now via Republic Records