Critical Voices: The Weeknd, Starboy

December 5, 2016

Photo: XO

Abel Tesfaye, popularly known as The Weeknd, spared no expense to publicize his latest album: teasing with singles, mysterious music videos, a conspicuously star-studded list of features, and a twelve-minute video entitled simply “MANIA.” The extravagance of Tesfaye’s preparation for his latest album’s release is indicative of his attitude throughout the album. Starboy is opulent. Starboy is long. Starboy is a celebration of the unrelenting success of the most sought-after pop star in the industry. The Weeknd has been assigned massive shoes to fill, mentioned alongside Michael Jackson and Prince. While Tesfaye’s exploration of his massive success and these expectations is a focal point of Starboy, he stays true to his original sound with lush production, exceptional vocals, and stereotypically crude subject matter.

Starboy begins with the title track, “Starboy,” in which The Weeknd teams up with pop titans Daft Punk for a compelling, beautiful, and haunting contemplation of his place in the music industry. Tesfaye has found his success in tracks like these, and his experience with hits shows in his practiced vocals and mature production.

This contemplation continues throughout the album. In the dark and unrelenting “Party Monster,” he reflects “woke up by a girl / I don’t even know her name…I just need a girl who gon’ really understand.” This song shows Tesfaye’s uncanny ability to make a song you want to party to at first listen, but upon closer listening expresses a darker underlying theme, like the loneliness of such an unrelenting lifestyle. “Party Monster” also pushes Tesfaye to the boundaries of rap music as he layers urgent verses over his traditionally expansive beat. “Reminder” delves into The Weeknd’s popular appeal, remarking “I just won a new award from a kid’s show…I am not a teen choice” alongside his characteristically blatant descriptions of his sexual desires. It is jarring to hear Tesfaye rapping about winning a Teen’s choice award and wanting to “swim in something wetter than the ocean” in the same breath, but it appears to simply be a demonstration of the cognitive dissonance that he experiences every day.

While many sounds from Tesfaye’s earlier works return in Starboy, the rapper has seriously improved the production value of his works by developing his voice as a more diverse and capable tool. With Daft Punk’s guidance, Tesfaye has begun venturing into the complex world of auto-tune, which requires meticulous balance to maintain emotional honesty and purity.

“Sidewalks” featuring Kendrick Lamar is the most clear instance of his experimentation, and Tesfaye does a good job of tastefully utilizing auto-tune, and layers it over a twanging electric guitar for an unexpected and catchy backdrop. Given more time with the medium, hopefully he can improve his skill and continue working with other artists to develop it in his music. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Sidewalks” is complex, alliterative, and rhyme-packed, and provides a welcome change of pace from Tesfaye’s crooning. Daniel Wilson provides strong supporting vocals as a natural falsetto counterpoint to The Weeknd’s tuned verses. “Sidewalks” is one of the most adventurous songs on Starboy, and allows all three artists to build on their roles in the music industry, while venturing into pop-rock territory. For Tesfaye, it is a chance to experiment, for Lamar a reminder of his absolute dominance, and for Wilson a shot at elevating his career.

The album takes a distinctly dark interpretation of 80s disco tones, which have recently experienced a resurgence in popular culture. Sonically, Starboy is both syrupy sweet and profoundly dark. Everything diehard fans of The Weeknd love about him is present on the album, from introspective lyrics to Tesfaye’s reliable falsetto, but now includes more lush, developed, and retro-inspired production. The Weeknd does branch out to an extent, creating a generally compelling and catchy overall project.

Voice’s Choices: “Starboy,” “Party Monster,” “Sidewalks”

Gustav Honl-Stuenkel
College class of 2020. Culture and music writer and peanut M&M fiend. Minneapolis native.

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