You’re not supposed to be able to do this anymore. You’re not supposed to make music that’s fueled by sex and drugs — that’s explicitly about sex and drugs — and then ride that music to massive crossover pop stardom. The Weeknd did that last year, and he’s suffering some of the identity-crisis spasms you might expect. On “Reminder,” a song from his new album, Starboy, Abel Tesfaye croons, “I just won a new award for a kids’ show / Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow / I’m like goddam, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice.” (He’s right. Last year, he lost Teen Choice Awards to Nicki Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, and One Direction. He was still a triple-nominee.) Given that the Weeknd came up singing dark, obsessive, gothic party songs over Beach House and Siouxsie & The Banshees samples, hiding his face from the world, you might expect that his post-breakthrough album would be some kind of R&B In Utero. You would be wrong. Musically, at least, Tesfaye has fully adapted to his new Teen Choice status — or, perhaps, the world has adapted to what Tesfaye is doing.
With Beauty Behind The Madness, the 2015 album that made him a star, Tesfaye effectively translated that dazed, bloodshot House Of Balloons style into widescreen mass appeal, bringing in cinematic Michael Jackson sonics but keeping his outlook as bleak as it was hedonistic. Beauty Behind The Madness was an album with a narrative arc, one that followed a cold-blooded casanova as he fell into hopeless love and got freaked out because he had no idea how to handle it. Nobody gave BBTM credit for being as rich and thought-out as it was, but it wasn’t like Tesfaye needed the critical respect that mostly evaded him; the album yielded two #1 hits and went triple platinum in the US alone. And while he’s now firmly a part of the A-list these days, commanding Daft Punk production and Kendrick Lamar and Future guest vocals, Tesfaye tries to keep that old dark intensity alive on Starboy, committing murders in all three of the album’s music videos and landing in Billboard’s top five with a song that has these lyrics: “Twenty racks a table cut from ebony / Cut that ivory into skinny pieces.” The entire first verse of “Ordinary Life” is about the mechanics of getting head while driving. Tesfaye remains absolutely committed to making sure we know that he’s still a dirtbag.
But despite all that lyrical debauchery, Tesfaye no longer sounds like a lost young man staring blankly at the yawning void of death. More than any of his previous work, Starboy is a cynical piece of commerce, an album that’s been precision-engineered for the widest-possible appeal. Even in its darkest, most freaked-out moments, his sound reads as a generations-removed simulacrum of Michael Jackson’s percussive paranoia. (He’s listed the Smiths, Bad Brains, the Talking Heads, David Bowie, Prince, and DeBarge as inspirations behind the album, but I hear none of them, other than maybe DeBarge, in there. Instead, he remains a coked-out MJ disciple, a role that he at least plays well.) Tesfaye is an impressive singer, one who floats over tracks with an effortless grace and who sounds slick and controlled even when he’s letting loose with the melismatic pyrotechnics. But when you remove his lyrics from the equation, Starboy is an album entirely without friction, one that hovers over the water without leaving a ripple.
Starboy is an R&B album the same way that Taylor Swift’s Red was a country album. Tesfaye is rooted in the genre, and there are a few overt nods to it, but he’s clearly on his way toward something slicker and more rootless. Max Martin’s name appears on three songs. (Martin only helped out on three tracks from Red.) And even though the two Daft Punk collabs on Starboy recall the sticky, expensive vintage-’80s pop sound of Random Access Memories, it’s perhaps telling that the French duo don’t get sole production credit on either of those songs; even when he’s got the robots on board, Tesfaye is still relying on his core collaborators to turn the tracks into Weeknd tracks. This is, by and large, music without idiosyncrasy, music to be played at comfortable volumes while driving the futuristic-looking, obscenely expensive cars that Tesfaye drives in his videos.
That’s not to say there’s no aesthetic variety on the album. A handful of slowed-up love jams, despite sounding insincere as all fuck, are pretty enough. “False Alarm” sounds like a smooth mega-budget take on coked-out early-’00s electroclash. “Secrets” hijacks both the melodies and the jittery percussive sensibilities of a few classically synthy new wave tracks. “Sidewalks,” on which A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad serves as co-writer and co-producer, has a nasty boom-bap strut to it — and Tesfaye, to his credit, sounds almost at home as his guest Kendrick Lamar does. But these don’t feel like artistic experiments. They feel like items in a well-balanced portfolio. Even the album’s extreme length — 18 tracks, at least six too long — scans more as a business decision than an artistic one. After all, it’s easier to get those streaming numbers up when there are more songs to be streamed.
It’s funny: Tesfaye used to sound emotional about sounding emotionless. But on Starboy, he sounds like he’s found his lane, and that lane is “studious 4AM blankness.” Over and over on Starboy, Tesfaye sings odes to women with the same cold, conquering mindset that he has; it’s almost as if he’s singing love songs to himself. And yet the gnarliest, most passionate moment on the album is the one moment where one of those women gets a chance to sing — on “Stargirl Interlude,” when Lana Del Rey briefly coos about fucking in a kitchen. That one two-minute track is where Starboy feels most alive. The rest of the time, this is satisfying, well-executed pop music from someone who, once upon a time, was capable of something more.
Starboy is out now on XO/Republic. Stream it below.