It’s easy to be the “contrarian tough guy” when talking about The Weeknd, but the angle doesn’t work if the music holds up. And when the first, self-titled single for his new album starts with “I’m tryin’ to put you in the worst mood,” it doesn’t.
“Starboy” colon the song is just a fuckin’ stunner from that moment on. Put you in the worst mood. Why the worst? Who is “you”? Why would The Weeknd want to do that to us? Or the hook: “Look what you’ve done… I’m a motherfuckin’ Starboy!” Is this the same us? What did we do that later put ourselves in the worst mood? The Weeknd, we’re sorry! But really quick – is “Starboy” one word or two? Is that a Canadian thing, like a colloquialism for “rock star?”
These are healthy, formative questions for a lead single, speaking nothing of the incredible production from Daft Punk. It doesn’t give away its intentions, so you can get excited for the identically titled album that could go in a million directions. “Is it going to be a concept?!?!” Then there’s the unusual album promotion strategy too: a release date. Remember those? There’s a reason they’ve been around since Andy Williams used them with your great-grandmother: because people want to know when they can get those questions answered and listen to the damn album. I was no different.
But this is a fucking mess.
Starboy is like watching a football team that’s inept at offense(1). It’s an endless string of three-and-outs, then a first down where you get a little excited then an immediate fumble. Let’s break down “True Colors” here – which starts with the great production. There’s these sweeping arrangements between splashes of this familiar piano that’s more soul than R&B (like Aretha Franklin’s “Call Me,” maybe). Then there’s the “spacial aura” of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late with the seductive moxie of a Voodoo slow jam… it’s sophisticated but restrained. Which is good! The pins are set up, he’s just gotta knock ‘em down. So the hook:
“Girl come show me
your true colors”
OK, little corny, but hardly unexpected from a guy who denied his nominations for the Teen Choice Awards. It’s still good! I am squarely on board here. Next line.
“Paint me a picture
with your true colors”
A little metaphor, but an effective one, you know? So much better than “tell me what you do for a living while I cook us breakfast.” So again: good! Take us home, The Weeknd!
“These are the
questions of a new lover”
NO!!!! Even if you can (somehow) leave aside that no one has said “lover” in 50 years, there is – factually – no question here. Hell, the only question in the song so far was, verbatim: “girl, who else been with you?” …What? So the summary of this The Weeknd song - a slow jam - is “are you as big a slut as people say? If you think about it, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt just by asking.” Right.
Or “Sidewalks” –which again, great production courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammed. It kicks off with some guitars that’d feel more at home in a Quentin Tarentino soundtrack than in a The Weeknd album – exactly why it’s so effective. The verses are done in this pseudo-rap, like how late-career Kanye West “raps:” steady, melodic, and certainly unhurried. And once again, there’s another killer first line: “I ran out of tears when I was 18.” “Homeless to Forbes list” slays too. More good shit!(2) And then the hook: “Sidewalks saved my life, they don’t ever lie.”
Are you fucking kidding? When did it become fashionable to anthropomorphize by talking about the things inanimate objects don’t do? “This desk is my best friend, because it doesn’t talk back if I leave the toilet seat up” makes as much sense as “Sidewalks saved my life, they don’t ever lie.” No shit – no one assumed hunks of rock and sand were ever capable of doing that. Over and over the songs pick up steam before the rug is pulled and it’s so frequently you just know the best result for The Weeknd is a field goal.
When the tracks aren’t shooting themselves in the foot, the album is hard at work tripping over all its other content. The Weeknd started with “I love my babe” on “Starboy” but whines “I just need a girl who gon really understand” a track later before immediately dropping his sheet of lyrics and chasing a stripper. Then he’s outraged – outraged! – that gold diggers might be attracted to him. He blows off another by saying she shouldn’t love him, and then hosts a fucking inquisition about why she isn’t over her ex. Gee I have no idea. So you’re satisfied you’re just gonna have a big ol’ mess of random shit to parse (none of which is remotely endearing or interesting) and then: Int. Stargirl (Lana Del Rey): “And I shouldn’t cry, but I love it, Starboy.” Christ, when did we get back on the Starboy shit?
That’s the plot of the first 8 tracks. There’s a total of 18 with this complete absence of natural flow, and after about 13 it’s easy to wonder if you accidentally pushed something that sent Spotify into shuffle. “Didn’t I already hear ‘Die for You?’ Oh I’m thinking of ‘Nothing Without You.’” It’s an hour and ten minutes long, except The Weeknd just doesn’t have the range to carry that.
And that’s the problem with the totality of Starboy – the unignorable mountain of “except for.” “Sidewalks” is really good except for the hook. “Secrets” is great except for the over-the-top croon that sounds like a sound check for a New Wave Morrissey album or a Rick Astley comeback. Future is great on “All I Know” (3) except for the album’s natural conclusion 20 minutes prior. The Weeknd’s paranoia as a successful millennial is unique except for his futile, endless contradictions.
If you’re willing to accept all of that as inevitable, the reward for your virtue is stretching four or so good songs into maybe eight. Out of 18. So even then for each line like “if you ain’t my nigga then your girl single to me,” there’s two “I got a sweet Asian chick, she go lo mein!” For all the catchy “Billie Jean” tendencies of “A Lonely Night” there’s two homages to castaway genres that no one missed like “False Alarm.” Starboy may not all be bad, but it certainly gets very boring, or at least, extremely tedious.
Which, frankly, is where things are with The Weeknd in 2016. Not all bad, but certainly very boring, or at least, extremely tedious. The dude can definitely write good songs, and can write good hooks, and can pick out good production – for all its faults even Starboy shows he’s capable. But going three-for-three on any one track feels like it takes a planetary alignment. When good stuff is spattered so haphazardly with bad stuff you’ve got to wonder if it’s all done at random, and are not out of line asking if The Weeknd is less of a high-art villain and more of a blind squirrel.
Yet every time I get to the end, to “I Feel it Coming” – where it all syncs up in this marvelous haze of pop and R&B and synth and lite funk – and all I want to do is start the album over in pursuit of the other moments like that. And every time, I’m reminded of its infinite promise, in all its irony: “I’m tryin’ to put you in the worst mood.”
The Weeknd: Starboy
(1)OK, “The Jets”
(2)Kendrick Lamar is very much not included in this good shit. As an observation, in 2016, his guest appearance verses have now been served by Kanye West, Phife Dawg, and The Weeknd, which is not exactly a murderer’s row.
(3)The middle-of-the-road track is worth it just for Future, particularly: “Have you ever fucked a bitch this pretty? Hit her on the first night then went and bought her titties.”