In a year when the biggest stars of yesteryear and today all decided to drop albums with varying levels of fanfare, the man who the New York Times profiled last year on his quest to be “the Biggest Pop Star in the World” had a comparatively traditional rollout: release a few choice singles showcasing the range of the album, perform them on the requisite late-night television shows, and, in true 2016 fashion (literally and figuratively), add a few pop-up shops in the cities which arbitrate cool for good measure. Heck, there’s even a bus advertising the album on his Instagram just in case you’re technologically averse and still want to be in tune with the choice artists of the day. All of this to say, Abel Tesfaye acted in such a way that he and his team thought that one of the biggest pop crossovers this decade in Beauty Behind the Madness was only the beginning; that they could do one better. The end result: Starboy, an album that simultaneously attempts to cater to the hedonistic hipsters who fell in love with the Trilogy set of mixtapes and the top-40 stalwarts and ’80s revivalists who flocked to Beauty.
A tweet that I can no longer remember how to find nor its direct contents came, I believe, from insular rap extraordinaire Earl Sweatshirt, where he noted that albums really shouldn’t be more than 11 or 12 songs long. For his first four releases, Tesfaye followed this template, churning out a trilogy of nine-track mixtapes that never overstayed their welcome but still managed to create their own world all the same. Kiss Land was uneven, its lone pop play sticking out like a sore thumb in both running time and sound, but still, this album produced his most accomplished piece of music, the title track, the logical endpoint of the two-part songs from Trilogy that told stories unto themselves like the introduction to Don Delillo’s Underworld, and just as detailed. “This ain’t nothing to relate to,” he warned and bragged, and this theme permeates the most impressive of Starboy‘s songs.
The opener and title track was, understandably, released as the first single from the album, as it fits the same mold as “The Hills” from the album prior — a song that merges both of his fan bases while fitting perfectly at home on a radio landscape that he helped create. It transitions into “Party Monster”, a fine song with regards to its vibes, but with a complete misuse of misanthropic queen Lana Del Rey, whose Paradise still sits as the template for what the female response to Trilogy would be, and just as perfect. This leads to the oddest juxtaposition on the album: “False Alarm”, a blatant pop radio grab that falls short despite its stated critically acclaimed influences, which moves into “Reminder”, far and away the best song on the album.
“Reminder” captures that Trilogy-era magic, and is undoubtedly the best song he’s made since 2014’s classic “King of the Fall”. He is at once reflective and humorous, discussing the inexplicable popularity with children that occurred from a song all about the effects of cocaine (it’s worth noting that he explored this earlier in the year on his remix to Bryson Tiller’s “Rambo” when he said “Society now acceptin’ me, pray for the young ones”) and dismissing anything that isn’t in his created ethos (“If it ain’t XO, then it gotta go”). It’s a completely enthralling, adrenaline-inducing experience, and he turns in one of the best vocal performances on the album as he croons “You know, me / You know me”. The beat, as well, knows when to play minimal with sparse snares and low bass, and when to utilize the bright synths.
Once “Reminder” ends, however, the concessions begin. “Rockin'” through “True Colors” are paint-by-numbers synth-pop jams that will soundtrack many a dancefloor but lack the inventiveness that made him such a compelling artist to begin with. The “Stargirl Interlude”, “Sidewalks”, and “Six Feet Under” stretch return the moody haze, turning in performances from Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar, and Future, respectively that provide a reprieve from Tesfaye’s croons that was unnecessary throughout Trilogy but become welcome here. Del Rey and Future, especially, are two artists who operate in the same aesthetic sphere as him, and their two appearances on the album a piece make perfect sense.
Elsewhere, the old Weeknd returns with a crassly detailed opening verse on “Ordinary Life” before he becomes introspective once more by chronicling the effects his mortal tendencies have had on his perceived spiritual development. This is short-lived, however, as three of the final songs on the album (“Nothing Without You”, “Die for You”, and “I Feel it Coming”) are three of the worst songs he’s ever put his name to, and the titles themselves should suggest how overproduced and saccharine they all are. There’s radio play to be had with these tracks, and it’s hard to fault somebody for going for the extreme lucrativeness of the pop charts, but by his own admission, he went “platinum off a mixtape”, so it’s not like the paying masses can’t recognize great art when they see it.
So, in short, Earl Sweatshirt was right in this instance, as Starboy was a handful-and-then-some songs too long, a deviation from the formula that put him on the path to stardom — long-form songs, but precious few of them, and a debauched perspective dared by few else, with a voice all his own. Starboy has something for each individual, this is without a doubt, but it has nothing for everybody as a collective, a balance he managed on his first three releases.