The Weeknd, or Abel Tesfaye if you’re keeping score, returns after the success of Beauty Behind the Madness and breakout single “Can’t Feel My Face” with Starboy. On the surface he presents yet another fine-tuned and polished pop album with a dark heart. I’m not sure why it isn’t hitting me the way I suspect its creators want it to.
Or maybe I do. This is The Weeknd’s sixth release but, on the ledger, only his third official album. The first three mixtapes comprise a sort of trilogy in themselves, sharing an ethos in design and content that I think speaks to Tesfaye’s big-picture ambitions. With the new album, he has arrived at the place where those ambitions have paid off in terms of public adulation, but to me there isn’t a wide variation between Beauty Behind The Madness and Starboy. He still sings with Michael Jackson’s sweet tone while expressing some very dark thoughts. The instrumentation on the album is bright yet cold, like a blue neon sign with sketchy wiring, skittering out now and then. Someone coined the phrase “noir pop” and that sounds about right.
Everything nonetheless sounds like a plan, a timeline with specific deliverables, and Tesfaye hits every one of them so precisely that, even though he has one of the most soulful voices in modern music, much of the record sounds devoid of heart. To give you an example, like the previous record you get a “featuring” with Lana Del Rey (“Stargirl Interlude”). You get bright dance tracks in “Secrets” and “A Lonely Night.” “Party Monster” scopes out a woman with “Angelina’s lips” and “Selina’s hips.” You get the interesting “Love To Lay” as well as two Daft Punk collaborations, the title track and “I Feel It Coming.” You can interpret that The Weeknd is positioning himself as a sort of “arch enemy in style” to Pharrell Williams, the shade to Pharrell’s sunlight.
But even in the songs that desire to get as down and dirty as can be, or in the songs that reach for a level of ecstatic headspace, The Weeknd seems strangely anhedonic and remote. He wants to get all screwed up, in all the ways one gets all screwed up, but it don’t mean much to him. The title of the record is homage to David Bowie’s “Starman,” and Tesfaye has cited Prince as a huge influence. You can’t argue with his selection of forebears. Yet when Bowie was up, he was really up, and when he was down, he was like a grinning satyr both absorbing and mocking the sin at the same time. Prince famously had three subjects that ruled his work: love, God, and sex, sometimes all in the same song, and in all cases he was reaching for ecstasy. Even when The Weeknd sings with a heartbroken tremor, he can’t seem to break through his emotional disconnection.
If you are all about the sound of music versus the statement of music, Starboy will probably be your record of choice until the end of 2016. It sounds like everything a modern pop album should be. The guy behind it, on the other hand, doesn’t come across like he’s all that into it. That’s the disappointment here. Songs about passion need that passion to be real and present. Sounding heartbroken without really conveying heartbreak can get you only so far. The Weeknd is on the verge of a breakthrough, perhaps not out of the darkness that he prefers in his songwriting, but out of this “meh, whatever” middle ground. I don’t think Starboy is there yet.