On paper, R&B pop star The Weeknd seems like a slam dunk. Infectious smash hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” and an intoxicating, Michael Jackson-on-depressants sound should have instantly drawn me to his back catalog of mixtapes and albums. But, for some ineffable reason, instinct told me that the The Weeknd’s radio singles were as good as it got. As a result, I’d never listened to a full-length project by The Weeknd (birth name Abel Tesfaye) until 2016’s Starboy, his third studio album.

My interest peaked, of course, when word of Daft Punk’s involvement reached me. The French electronic duo’s futuristic yet simplistic aesthetic complements The Weeknd’s quavering, impassioned voice so much so that I almost wish the whole record was a Daft Punk/The Weeknd collab. “Starboy”, the album’s lead single and the opening track, is a prime example of this chemistry. Daft Punk lays down a whomping, dizzying groove decorated with piano embellishments and rhythmic vocoder, atop which The Weeknd vividly describes his stardom, wealth, and influence. Despite the song’s apparent braggadocios nature, lines like “House so empty, need a centerpiece” and The Weeknd’s melancholic urgency during the hook (“Look what you’ve done”) make me feel as if Abel remains unfulfilled by fame.

The second Daft Punk track and the album’s closer, “I Feel It Coming”, is another win for The Weeknd. The instrumental is smooth, sensual, sci-fi funk with breezy guitar lines and more vocoder. Abel’s infectious melodies are laid-back and playful. The song is as straightforward as they come, but it feels so goddamn good on the ears.

So the album starts strong and ends strong, but how’s the meat of the thing? As it turns out, not great. The songs aren’t even that bad. I would almost have preferred them to be outright awful so I could at least enjoy scoffing at them atop my holier-than-thou critical pedestal. But alas, almost all of Starboy’s cuts have a sliver of a redeeming quality, but these moments of musical pleasure are either few and far between, or strung out until they become tiresome. What’s even worse for The Weeknd’s credibility as a creatively viable artist, he seems to be relying primarily on instrumentals (created by a laundry list of top-notch producers) and mildly catchy hooks to disguise his lackluster songwriting.

The second track “Party Monster” sports a wonderfully eerie, chillingly robotic instrumental that is unfortunately dulled by repetitive, anti-climatic vocals from The Weeknd. The subsequent song, “False Alarm”, features an explosive hook with wild, screamed vocals and mind-melting synthesizer soundscapes, but the rest of the song doesn’t come close to matching the chorus’s energy.
Despite the barebones, herky-jerky appeal of the  “Sidewalks” instrumental, the autotune lathering Abel’s voice is tasteless and unnecessary, seeing as the dude can sing perfectly well without pitch correction. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the back-half is merely average and fails to save the song.

“Rockin’”, “Love to Lay”, and “A Lonely Night” see The Weeknd aimlessly throwing metaphorical paint at tight, disco-funk beats in futile attempts to recreate the infectious pop appeal of “Can’t Feel My Face”. To make matters worse, Abel’s half-assed songwriting seems to have tuckered him out in time for Starboy’s last third; from “Ordinary Life” through “All I Know” with Future, The Weeknd merely goes through the motions with little to no charisma or conviction.

Starboy is as lyrically uninterestingly as it is melodically bland. Abel either laments troubled or broken love, or brags about how awesome his life as a famous singer is. Both of these themes are already quite overdone in the popular music sphere. And Abel’s lyrics have nothing compelling or new to contribute, beyond revealing the ridiculousness of “Can’t Feel My Face”’s popularity among the young’uns (“I just won a new award for a kids show/Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow/I’m like, goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice”).

However, the record contains a few gems. The production on “True Colors” draws from the James Blake/Bon Iver playbook, featuring sparkling keys and high-pitched, mechanized yet lively background vocals. The Weeknd’s vocals soar with emotional weight while showing a great deal of finesse and restraint. Lana Del Rey gives a gorgeous, breathy performance on “Stargirl Interlude”, a fusion of her dream-pop, neo-noir aesthetic and the whimsical sounds of early Kate Bush.

Sure, Starboy has a few incredible tracks, not to mention one of the biggest and best pop songs of 2016 with “Starboy”. But the project as a whole feels lazy and incohesive. The Weekend proves himself to be the mumble rapper of R&B pop stars; he hops on beats and adds mindless melodies, most of which sound mediocre and uninspired. Starboy is just a boring record. It confirmed my initial instinct about The Weeknd’s music; stick to the hits, because the deep cuts just don’t hold a candle.


Highlights: Starboy, I Feel It Coming, True Colors, Stargirl Interlude

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