Don’t let the new haircut fool you. The Weeknd may have cleaned up his crown of talon-like locks, but he hasn’t cleaned up his act on his new album, Starboy. Driving that point home is a song called “Reminder,” in which 26-year-old Abel Tesfaye details his drug habits (“Faded off a double cup, I’m mixing up the potion”) and bed-hopping ways (“I come back to my city, I f— every girl I know”) while flashing a casual middle finger to the music biz for good measure (“Record man play my song on the radio/ You too busy trying to find that blue-eyed soul”).
So the Weeknd isn’t one for self-censoring — why should he be? There’s a voyeuristic thrill to hearing his twisted R&B odes about getting lit and getting laid, and that’s played no small part in his rise from an anonymous mixtape artist to an arena headliner over the last few years. Instead of sanitizing him, the success of last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness, which earned him two consecutive No. 1 hits, has only encouraged him to be bleaker and more explicit. Big-name hitmakers like Diplo, Benny Blanco, and returning collaborator Max Martin produced several tracks here, but you wouldn’t know it from listening. Nothing matches the euphoria of “Can’t Feel My Face” or “In the Night”—nor could it. Instead, everyone plays on the Weeknd’s turf now, opting for muted hooks, hazy trap beats, and grimy house basslines that reveal little interest in pandering to the pop masses. (Not that he needs to, anyway: The hiccuping title track is currently sitting at No. 3 on the Hot 100.)
Self-editing, on the other hand, is not the Weeknd’s strong point. There’s only so many songs he can devote to his favorite topics (sex, altered states, dangerous women, sex with dangerous women during altered states) before his terrible-boyfriend shtick gets tired and redundant. There’s nothing on, say, “Six Feet Under,” about a cold-hearted, money-making club queen, that he didn’t already accomplish with his contributions to Beyoncé’s “Six Inch” earlier this year, and he’s certainly better than these cringe-worthy puns: “Got a sweet Asian chick/ She go low, mane.” As the beats start to blur together like one of his debaucherous nights out, the album’s 18 tracks feel more like a brag about his output and work ethic than a genuine gift to the listener: Forget quality control—look how many songs I can make in a year!
That’s not to say the Weeknd doesn’t try to mix it up. A refreshing punk-rock energy surges through “False Alarm,” while dance music kings Daft Punk help him further explore his freaky disco side on the shimmering album closer “I Feel It Coming.” His attempts at getting deep, like the slow-jam “True Colors,” are unconvincing after several tracks about side-chicks and stealing other dudes’ girlfriends, but there’s real promise when he gets meta about his own career. Starboy’s standout tunes include the ones that directly examine his unlikely rise and its cultural implications. And while musicians writing about coping with newfound celebrity is one of pop’s oldest tropes, the Weeknd avoids the usual clichés with observations and anecdotes that feel specific and genuine. Whether he’s referencing his experience with homelessness on the Kendrick Lamar collab “Sidewalks” or puzzling over his mass appeal on “Reminder”—“I just won a new award for a kids’ show/ Talking ‘bout a face numbing off a bag of blow,” he sings, almost disgusted—Starboy proves that life at the top isn’t as interesting as how he got there.
A shadowy twist on ’80s new-wave that offers one of Starboy‘s catchiest hooks
A dirty house jam that reunites him with the songwriting team behind “Can’t Feel My Face”
“Starboy” feat. Daft Punk
The year’s biggest, boldest bragfest, courtesy of the helmeted highnesses of dance music