In 2015, the Weeknd caused a glitch in the matrix.
For his second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness, Abel Tesfaye wrote a song about losing feeling in his face after snorting cocaine, a typical topic for the Canadian prince of darkness, and yet it was so catchy it had radio programmers raving like addicts. The song hit no. 1 on the Billboard charts; it played on hip-hop radio, pop radio and even kids' radio, eventually earning the Weeknd nominations on both Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards and Fox's Teen Choice Awards.
That award season, nothing made sense — not even to the Weeknd, who had told New York Times he's aiming to be nothing less than the next Michael Jackson. For Starboy, the Weeknd's third studio album, released on Black Friday, the singer takes a step back from the chipper, popularity grabs that peppered his last outing — just a step.
"I am not a Teen Choice," the Weeknd intones on Starboy's fourth track "Reminder." "Goddamn bitch I am not a bleach boy."
There's a still a definite radio buzziness, but there is no "I Can't Feel My Face" opiate for the masses; there is no friendly Ed Sheeran feature, as his last album had. The Weeknd has found a way to be pop and inhabit the shadows where he got his start. However, merging past and present doesn't come without its pitfalls. The album houses some of the least inspired songs in the Weeknd's catalog, alongside some of his most promising.
Starboy literally brings together talents who have helped shape the Weeknd's sound at every stage. Max Martin, the hitmaker who catalyzed the Weeknd's turn from drug-addled alt-R&B luminary to drug-addled household pop star, secures credits on five tracks, including the album's title track and several of the more skippable ballads toward the album's end. Doc McKinney, Canadian producer who distanced himself from the Weeknd camp after the artist's first three mixtapes, appears on 11 tracks.
The songs showcase a dramatic range in styles — from a punk-tinged electro ("False Alarm"), uptempo house ("Rockin'"), melodic trap ("Six Feet Under"), vaporwave ("I Feel It Coming") — and most of them fit. The Weeknd's horror show depravity is on full display on tracks like "Sidewalks" and "Stargirl Interlude," dragging out fittingly sinister and explicit lines from collaborators Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey. She helps the Weeknd craft two of the album's standout melodic moments: the "paranoid" refrain in previously released "Party Monster" and the graphic, desperate sexual fantasy of "Stargirl."
I had a vision
A vision of my nails in the kitchen
Scratching counter tops, I was screaming
My back arched like a cat, my position couldn't stop you were hitting it
And I shouldn't cry, but I love it, Starboy
The Weeknd's description of the album as a series of violent, "schizophrenic" character sketches fits. However, some of those characters are aggressively boring rather than legitimately threatening. Tracks like "Rockin'" and "Secrets" have absolutely nothing new to offer listeners' evolving conceptions of what pop can sound like. They're half-baked '80s throwbacks that only serve to remind the listener that Tesfaye has responsibilities now as a major label act.
Still, on the whole, the Weeknd does not allow the listener to forget he's still determined to die young "like James Dean," as he sings on "Ordinary Life," or that he's hustled his success out of the most improbable foundations.
"Too many people think they made me," the Weeknd raps in one of the album's most cutting verses on "Sidewalks." "Well, if they really made me then replace me/ Homeless to Forbes List, these niggas bring no stress."
The Weeknd has yet to outlive his usefulness. He has far more imitators now than he did in the Trilogy era, and for the most part, Starboy shows he's still one of the best at packaging today's excessively popular hallucinogenic trap into new styles and forms. However, the the masterpiece that will solidify his legacy and unite his fanbases — those here for the nightmare and kiddies hungry for his "Billie Jean" bops — is still out there somewhere.