The Weeknd got a haircut. Too bad he can’t invest a similar amount of time in cutting down his album.
The Weeknd dropped his third album “Starboy,” this weekend and, clearly, he needs more time than a year and a few months between albums to produce a well-crafted work. “Starboy” is an unfortunate extension of the pop side of last year’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” and only removes The Weeknd more from his dark, brooding—yet interesting and, at the time, unique—roots. While there are undoubtedly strong moments on the album, they are few and far between, buried in overtly commercial dreck.
The album opens with its best song, the Daft Punk-produced “Starboy,” which is anchored by unsurprisingly strong production composing of pattering drums, distant background synthesizer, and simple piano chords. The Weeknd delivers typical Weeknd lyrics about sex, cars, cocaine—you can fill in the blanks by this point—but a strong chorus implicating the detractors in his fame centers the song.
The next song. “Party Monster,” is strong in comparison to the rest of the album as well, with trap snare underpinning more lyrics about sex and alcohol. The tasteless addition of a few seconds of vocoder after each chorus repetition drags it down, however—if the Weeknd is trying to channel the end of “Runaway,” he’s failing miserably.
After the first two songs, there are 16 tracks left, only one of which is an interlude, and the highlights are few and far between. An insufferable yelping chorus drags down “False Alarm,” and “Rockin’” tries to channel Michael Jackson with a stuttering dancehall beat, but it just sounds like a rehash of every other R&B hit of the last five years.
“True Colors” is a half-standout but the Weeknd relies too much on his weak falsetto, rather than remaining in his more comfortable tenor. The Weeknd’s sex/drugs/disillusionment female counterpart Lana Del Rey appears on the album’s only interlude, “Stargirl Interlude”, but she’s obscured by the haze that pervades all the Weeknd’s slower tracks.
The interlude brings the listener to the debacle that is “Sidewalks.”
“But Kendrick Lamar is featured—it can’t be that bad!” you might say.
But it is. Knock-off Travis Scott-style guitar opens the track before the Weeknd delivers some of his weakest half-sung bars yet before a soulless autotune chorus. Then, Kendrick. Yes, “To Pimp a Butterfly” was transcendent, and “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was incredible. But, damn, when is Kendrick going to learn how to deliver a guest verse on a track that isn’t Big Sean’s? Switching into his double-tracked, faster flow isn’t enough to save one of the most dull verses released this year.
At this point, the album only decreases in quality. “Love to Lay” and “A Lonely Night” are back-to-back pop confections with bleakly upbeat choruses that pale in comparison to last year’s infectious “Can’t Feel My Face,” but you know they’ll chart. Future appears on “All I Know,” but still sounds tired from his brutal string of mixtape releases—no amount of cocaine can revive him at this point.
Daft Punk appears on the closer, delivering a warm, retro beat that would have fit in on “Random Access Memories,” and echoing the Weeknd’s strong chorus with their robotic vocoder, which The Weeknd compliments well by sounding human for the first time on the second half of the album—a half that needed far more time on the cutting room floor than it received.
Though bloated and shameless in its pop roots, “Starboy” is incredibly well-produced and flows seamlessly from song to song, an impressive feat when done over 18 tracks. It's also a natural extension of “Beauty Behind the Madness” for The Weeknd, in that it further ventures from the ominous and almost painfully introspective R&B roots that made him famous—gone are the “Tell Your Friends” and the “Live Fors”. Those who hoped that he would become a dark counterpart to other R&B stars like Frank Ocean or Miguel will surely be disappointed, but the charts will surely be forgiving.
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