Frank Ocean’s tardiness in delivering Blonde advantaged that other avant ‘n’ B star – The Weeknd, aka Abél Tesfaye. After 2013’s underwhelming ‘official’ premiere, Kiss Land, the Canadian-Ethiopian became pop’s most implausible crossover phenom. First, he lent his outlier cred to Nickelodeon princess Ariana Grande, duetting on Love Me Harder. Then the alt-balladeer unveiled the sumptuous Earned It for the Fifty Shades Of Grey OST. For his triumphant follow-up, Beauty Behind The Madness (BBTM), he hired Britney Spears’ hitmaker Max Martin. What could have proved disastrous wasn’t.
Now, just over a year since giving us 2015’s most streamed album, the prolific Tesfaye returns with his third outing in Starboy. He’s opted for a conventional roll-out, too – no stealth release, no black swan event. Tesfaye has shared a short film, M A N I A, on YouTube – complete with decadent panther cameo. He’s emulated Kanye West’s global pop-up shops, one opening in Melbourne. And the once incognito auteur is granting (select) interviews.
Between records, Tesfaye has been ever more visible, wading through paparazzi with supermodel GF Bella Hadid. But he also cut buzz collabs with acts as disparate as Disclosure, Yeezy and Bey. No wonder Tesfaye hasn’t yet accommodated an Australian tour. Sulk.
Alas, just as Drake plateaued creatively with Views, the same might be said of his old cohort Tesfaye on Starboy. There’s no radical reinvention – unless you count the lopping off of his iconic dreads. This is ironic because Starboy was supposedly inspired by Tesfaye’s regenerating hero David Bowie, Starman.
If anything, Starboy is even more uptempo than BBTM. Steered by Daft Punk, the krautrock’d title-track – and initial hit – starts the party. It’s Tesfaye’s Hotline Bling shuffler. Still, Starboy is a darkly conflicted disco album – Tesfaye isn’t about to shed his urban metaphysics. Those familiar themes creep in – his struggles, ambivalence towards women/fame/success, and feeling “fucked up”.
Possessing a fragile falsetto, occasionally Auto-Tuned here, Tesfaye has long showed his affinity with Michael Jackson. He’s covered Dirty Diana, a (dodgy) soft metal song about groupies off Bad. With the druggy, Martin-stamped smash Can’t Feel My Face, Tesfaye styled himself as a corrupted Jackson to Ocean’s nihilistic Prince. A Lonely Night, again from Martin’s camp, should be a mega, mega-anthem.
Tesfaye has reunited with his “mentor” Martin “Doc” McKinney, who contributed to 2011’s inaugural mixtape, House Of Balloons (nerd fact: in the ’90s McKinney was half of the cult trip-hop combo Esthero). But he’s likewise reconnected with Cirkut – another HOB producer, but today noted as Dr Luke’s chief partner. Nonetheless, Tesfaye’s curation on Starboy is surprisingly… conservative. He even has a freakin’ Diplo track.
The stand-outs are the atypical songs. False Alarm borders on rave – with a screamo chorus (Tesfaye is a Bad Brains fan). The Martin-guided Rockin’ is a companion to Tesfaye’s Disclosure hook-up, Nocturnal – a facsimile of Inner City’s Detroit techno-pop. Tesfaye sings of seeking a no-strings attachment.
The coolest number is Secrets – an ingenious flip of Tears For Fears’ 1982 Pale Shelter. The UK’s emo New Wavers have a secret fan club in contemporary hip-hop, Ye sampling Memories Fade on 808s & Heartbreak.
The guests on BBTM were outlandish (Ed Sheeran!). However, yet again, Starboy is predictable with Future and Kendrick Lamar – the latter adding grit to the defiant, guitary Sidewalks, co-produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad (timely, that).
Lana del Rey crooned on BBTM’s Prisoner – and, on Starboy, her disembodied voice haunts Party Monster, which takes ’80s industrial-electro to The Hills. Tesfaye actually introduces La La as his “Stargirl” on the airy interlude of the same name. Starboy is bookended with a second Daft Punk collab – the sentimental French touch I Feel It Coming.
As a Weeknd pop album, Starboy is hooky, and hypnotic, enough. But Tesfaye seems peculiarly aimless. The risk is that he will sacrifice the neoteric for ubiquity.
The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ is out now.