If you’ve listened to pop radio stations in the last year, you might think that the only two songs on The Weeknd (given name Abel Tusfaye)’s previous album (Beauty Behind the Madness) were “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night.” Since then, The Weeknd has separated into two entities: the new, pop Weeknd that sprouted from that album and the sultry, Toronto Alt-R&B Weeknd that longtime fans reminisce about. While both styles are sonically present on Starboy, along with some interesting rock influences, the end result is a mixed bag of electric, passionate, sure-fire hits and mundane filler tracks that could have been cut in favor of a more cohesive project.
The album is at its best when it catches listeners off-guard. Daft Punk’s cold, industrial production on Starboy is reminiscent of “Glass Table Girls” from one of Tusfaye’s earlier projects, “House of Balloons.” Thankfully, the hook for the title track,“I’M A MOTHERFUCKING STARBOY,” is grandiose and doesn’t hold back in the slightest. Highlights like “Reminder,” “Sidewalks,” “True Colors,” “Attention,” and “Die for You” succeed because they give Tusfaye room to work his magic and aren’t forced into alien genre territory. Conversely, “False Alarm” stands out as a wild leap into punk song composition and hides a sample of Aster Aweke’s “Y’shebellu,” adding a touch of Abel’s Ethiopian heritage into the mix.
At times, Starboy feels like a product of fame rather than a commentary on it. “Rockin’,” an upbeat track produced by acclaimed pop songwriter Max Martin, is unoriginal in composition concept and lyrics. Elusive, sexy, R&B-inspired house is a very potent combination in terms of production, but The Weeknd fails to capitalize on it with any meaningful performance. The rest of the dance tracks on the album are also low points that don’t capture the Michael Jackson flow he was going for.
All the vocal features could have been cut from this album. “Stargirl Interlude” doesn’t come close to the chemistry that Lana del Rey and The Weeknd had on “Prisoner” in Beauty Behind the Madness. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Sidewalks” highlights his signature fast-paced lyricism but feels jarring when juxtaposed with soulful, crooning vocal hooks and a laissez-faire, slow-jam drum track. While “All I Know” is a Certified Banger, that’s mostly due to Future’s hooks and verses. The song could have found a better home on a Future mixtape. Specific examples aside, the thematic focus of Abel portraying himself as a star, front and center, could’ve been more effective on a solo album. Poorly-placed collaborations and radio-centric dance flops hold back an otherwise satisfying change in direction for The Weeknd’s third album.