2016 has undisputedly been the year of self enlightenment and self empowerment with many artists broadening their lyrical horizons as they made bold sociopolitical statements in their music, shining light on the ugly truths of the government and the unfair system it births, as well as showing solidarity with pro black and pro feminism movements.
The Weeknd, however, opted to stick to his usual themes of drugs, sex, love and the unglamorous side of fame – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as some albums are purely for escapism - providing a soundtrack for your late night driving, which is exactly what this does.
In late September when he rid his Instagram of all his images, us fans knew it was the beginning of an era – a new Abel Tesfaye. A couple days later he not only revealed the artwork for the title track, Starboy, he also revealed a new look – a clean cut, fresher looking Tesfaye without his signature Basquiat inspired locs. With this new development, we were certain this meant his new album would be a major leap from his previous work – an evolution from boy to man. In some ways it was, but in other ways it felt very rehashed and very repetitive.
Fame: A Haven of Phoniness, Shallowness and Emptiness
The album itself chronicles the bittersweet propel into fame – a story of gaining what some might deem as “everything” but losing a lot in the process, be it his soul or his loved ones. There are many religious references peppered throughout the album, on songs such as ‘Starboy’ and ‘Ordinary Life’, where Tesfaye implies this lifestyle will send him on a journey to hell and he would “trade it all for a halo”. The clever use of juxtaposition between heaven and hell is effective in ‘Ordinary Life’, a song that sees him return to his gritty roots (a la ‘Echoes of Silence’) reinforcing the fact that fame is a bittersweet experience – with the curses outweighing the blessings.
Although his last album ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ ascended him on to new heights (chart wise and status wise) he still can’t help but feel lonely and somewhat incomplete, a sentiment that’s heavily reflected in the title tracks music video, which features him cutting a forlorn figure in his big house as he kills his former self and destroys his previous musical accolades with a massive red cross –symbolising his yearning for spiritual wealth. On the way up he feels he’s lost a part of himself, and he’s on the search for a higher power to give him fulfilment.
With lines like “house so empty needs a centrepiece” it exemplifies his desire to be rooted somewhere as he’s constantly on the road, travelling and touring. The “house” could also be representative of himself – a lonely entity. There’s also a newfound confidence on the Daft Punk produced track, with lines like “you talking bout me I don’t see the shade”, most likely alluding to him being at the top, which makes him oblivious to the haters.
He also lets us know he isn’t in a completely happy place with lines such as “I switch up my cup, I kill any pain”, letting us know he still self-medicates (which has been a major theme throughout his previous discography). This song is definitely a standout, with its understated ode to 80s sombre mood music, which instantly draws you in. Although the beat is constant with very little variation, the synths and piano, topped with Daft Punk’s eerie harmonies and The Weeknd’s echoing “look what you done” in the chorus, is enough to make a great track and one of the standouts on the album. Daft Punk’s contribution to the album was greatly felt, also with the closing track ‘I Feel It Coming’, which is evocative of the 80s dance era
Underwhelming lyricism yetstellar production
The majority of the songs on this album heavily relies on its production to carry it through, as the lyrics are quite diluted and on-the-surface as opposed to metaphorical and deeply poetic, causing them to be quite forgettable and unable to make the mark his previous work made (see: ‘Party Monster’, ‘Reminder’, ‘Rockin’’, ‘Six Feet Under’ & ‘All I Know’).
The Lana Del Rey assisted ‘Party Monster’, which lightly features her hauntingly beautiful vocals, ventures away from the 80s sound that is prominent throughout this album into trap inspired. On the surface, the lyrics mentally illustrate a man who proceeds to spend one night of debauchery with a stripper who has “lips like Angelina” and an “ass shaped like Selena”, but in the subtext it paints the sad picture of a man in desperate need of a connection that’s deeper than physicality. He assures the listener “I’m good, I’m good, I’m great”, but is he really? The constant repetition sounds more like he’s trying to convince himself. With lines like “woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name” peppering the track, he’s reinforcing the fact that this is a lonesome life, which is a constant theme on this album. Honestly I was disappointed in this song, with two great emotionally driven artists/songwriters I was hoping for something more hard-hitting, but this is quite lacklustre, although catchy. Their next collaboration on the ‘Stargirl’ Interlude however, is vocally beautiful, piercing and memorable – I wish it were longer.
Sonically, ‘False Alarm’, which tells the story of a materialistic, money-specific girl, is one of the most experimental songs on the album – giving me Rocky Horror and early 90s/late 2000s punk vibes. The sudden beat change and haunted vocals towards the end of the track is immense and causes a quick emotional shift, as it bleeds into the next track ‘Reminder’. The 80s inspired ‘Secrets’ gave me road trip and background-music-at-the-gym vibes, as he samples The Romantics hit ‘Talking in Your Sleep’. The song details a girl who lies about who her heart truly belongs to. Tesfaye is on to her, as he hears her “secrets that [she] keeps when [she] talks in her sleep”.
Production wise, this is an adventurous move for Tesfaye and although I’m not usually a fan of constant repetitive lyrics, this song pays homage to the 80s music formula, in terms of lyrical arrangement and musicality (the tension building verses, soaring choruses and somewhat cheesy harmonies) therefore it’s great and makes for a standout track. The production on the Kendrick Lamar featured ‘Sidewalks’, which details Tesfaye’s wins, losses and daily grind on the “main streets that made him”, is also amazing. This could serve as a part two for ‘Tell Your Friends’ and ‘Shameless’, as it fuses that Traditional R&B sound with acoustic folk, due to the heavy use of guitar, reminiscent of Ed Sheeran’s music.
On ‘True Colors’ and the Cashmere Cat produced ‘Attention’ and ‘Die For You’ he embraced that traditional R&B sound that was so prominent in the 90s and early 2000s. In a music climate that’s so Trap driven and overly distorted and autotuned, this was a refreshing change of pace and reflective of Tesfaye’s talent and versatility. ‘Die For You’ is also similar to R. Kelly’s hit ‘Feelin’ On Yo Booty’, in terms of the chorus arrangement, which brings a sense of nostalgia to the track. ‘Love To Lay’ and ‘A Lonely Night’ embody the 80s dance scene very well and are evocative of Michael Jacksons early work.
Although the lyricism in these songs are cliché with lines such as “we are nothing but strangers in a bed”, you can’t help but pulse your finger to these infectious rhythms. Although forgettable songs, ‘All I Know’ and ‘Attention’ do contain some standout moments, with the former featuring an eerie Gregorian-style chant in the middle of the song and the latter featuring computerised vocals reminiscent of their ‘Wild Love’ collaboration that debuted in early September.
Since his debut in 2011, The Weeknd has never exemplified the cookie cutter artist as he embodied the insecure, sad, non-conforming side of us. On ‘Starboy’ however, we see substantial character growth, such as a newfound confidence and the ability to exclaim his love, something he rarely did in his earlier works. These new developments can be seen on ‘Sidewalks’, where he confidently thanks himself and the sidewalks that “showed [him] the signs” for his success, exclaiming “too many people think they made me, well if they really made me then replace me”. ‘Reminder’ also reinforces his newfound confidence as he exclaims “all these n***** sound like my old sh*t”. He also brags about his recent win at the Kids Choice Awards for a song about the face numbing effects of cocaine (Can’t Feel My Face).
In ‘All I Know’ (the Cashmere Cat produced song which is typical of today’s sound, very bass driven and trap inspired and not necessarily ambitious) he assures the girl he “won’t hesitate” to love her, even though it’s not in his nature. In tracks ‘Attention’ and ‘Die For You’ (songs likely about ex-girlfriend Bella Hadid) he yearns to be with this girl and boldly exclaims “I am right for you”.
Soundtrack for the Winter
Overall, I feel as though this album could serve as the soundtrack for the remaining weeks of 2016. Although subject matter was sparse and over done and I doubt this album will stand the test of time, the nostalgic production and mellowness of the album is good enough to transcend you through space and time – providing great escapism. Standout tracks include: Starboy, Secrets, True Colours, Sidewalks, Nothing Without You, Die For You & I Feel It Coming.
Listen to the album here: