What happens when an avowed nihilist nearly loses the plot?
Starboy represents Abel Tesfaye's third album on a major label and sixth project overall, and while the underground mystery has largely dissipated around the Weeknd, in the mainstream spotlight, he's still determining the artist he wants us to see.
He's "Homeless to Forbes list," he persuasively frames it on the Kendrick Lamar-starring "Sideways," but something has been lost in translation. The hardcore XO faithful are happy for Tesfaye's success, but there's a niggling feeling that their hero thrives best in the shadows. Starboy's pop-minded tracks come well constructed, consulted and consigned, but he's now a multi-million-dollar entity, and there's a glossier sheen to go along with the freshly shorn locks.
Whereas Beauty Behind the Madness aimed for pop reception while fiercely holding onto the drugged-out feel, Starboy sobers up a bit, sanding off some of the edges to be easier to grasp. The Weeknd in this current incarnation is clearly enamoured with mid-'80s pop radio —notably, Thriller-to-Dangerous-era Michael Jackson — but Starboy also represents the ongoing push-and-pull between the moody nihilism of his earlier output to presenting shiny content that's conducive to adding a few more Grammys on his Queen St. mantle.
The urgent, electro-pop title track — which finds Tesfaye proclaiming, "I'm a motherfuckin' Starboy" — revels in its ornateness; "Party Monster" attempts to achieve a unembellished Trilogy vibe, but doesn't quite stick the landing; "False Alarm" is pure '80s pop-punk; "Reminder" clings to the brain thank to XO braggadocio and lyrics like "these R&B n*ggas be so lame."
Unfortunately, the house vibe of "Rockin'" collapses under its weight and the full '80s new wave mode of "Secrets," though reverent, is not particularly striking. "True Colors," though, dives into inspirational territory, narrowly avoiding schmaltz, while the delightful "I Feel It Coming" rides its MJ-meets-Stevie B-meets-Daft Punk to satisfying completion.
Starboy reaches for the stars, but Tesfaye's already there. From this vantage point, we bear witness to shiny imperfections on songs that feel increasingly ephemeral. Those wishing for a return to the Trilogy days will have to bit a tad longer; across 18 tracks, the Weeknd proves he's ready for primetime here, but there's still a sense of feeling out the new parameters. The perfect major label project is still in reach — this good but not great pop effort proves it. (Universal)