The Weeknd finally sheds his "mysterious" image and makes his best project in five years.
Earlier this week I came across a tweet from a music blog hyping a new artist as "mysterious," and for a second I thought I had travelled back in time to 2011. Mystery had been a prized value all throughout 20th Century pop music, having a hand in popularizing Led Zeppelin's fourth album, Jim Morrison's identity as a quasi-religious figure, Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" myth, and various Tupac death conspiracies, but the internet changed everything. It took about fifteen years of all-access, no-barriers contact with musicians via Myspace, Reddit AMAs, and live streams before we tired of the unprecedented transparency and craved more intrigue. Enter the 2010s, and the droves of artists-- Odd Future, The xx, Jay Electronica, Clams Casino, Death Grips-- who commodified purposeful obscurity.
Chief among them was Abel Tesfaye, who anonymously uploaded three tracks under the name The Weeknd in December 2010, then watched as a Drake co-sign led to mainstream coverage, then rave reviews of his debut tape, House Of Balloons. When he did finally reveal himself at a performance in his hometown some seven months after his YouTube uploads, everyone in attendance was already singing along. It was, in many ways, a flawless strategy for introduction: come out with a fully-formed aesthetic and persona, with no baggage from your past, personal or musical. We didn't know that Tesfaye worked at American Apparel, or that Earl Sweatshirt's father was an internationally-recognized poet, or that Clams was a white dude from Jersey-- they were able to curate their public images with more control than any previous generation of young, unsigned artists. And curate they did, to the point that some artists' music seemed more like the sonic equivalent of a "personal brand" than actual expression. Then came a rash of unusually brutal growing pains.
In presenting a narrow sliver of personality and sound, these "mystery" musicians left themselves no room to grow. People fell in love with their five carefully-composed photos and one-line description on Tinder, then recoiled once money, fame, and major-label releases allowed the full picture to come into focus. Tyler The Creator's Goblin, The xx's Coexist, and The Weeknd's Kiss Land were all swiftly panned. The Weeknd's first performance in front of thousands, at Coachella 2012, was disastrous, charitably described as "like watching a horror movie on a sunny Saturday morning" by Pigeons & Planes. The values that make an effortlessly cool, Tumblrshopped 45 minute tape are vastly different from the ones that shape a sustainable career in music, and for the past five years, those online mavens of mystery have been backtracking to discover those, with varying degrees of success. Starboy is the moment when The Weeknd, the artist, finally merges with Abel Tesfaye, the human.
Last year's Beauty Behind the Madness marked an unprecedented success for The Weeknd by standard, IRL metrics. Two number one singles, a number one debut, a Grammy, an Oscar nomination, 3x platinum-- it doesn't get much better than that for albums in our current era. But even though it seemed to sit better with day-one fans than Kiss Land, which tried a high-sheen update of the 2011 mixtapes' murky sounds, its (admittedly expert) concessions for pop radio left us craving something that was lost along the way. He had reconnected with Trilogy producer Illangelo, but it seemed as if collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Rey, and Swedish superproducer Max Martin were more crucial in setting the album's tone. For Starboy, he teams up with HOB's other main architect, Doc McKinney, for the first time since 2011's Thursday, and effectively shoots for the middle ground between his early days and his more recent retro pop sound.
Starboy contains pretty much everything that you've ever loved about The Weeknd, no matter what it is you love about him. There's nihilism, anonymous sex, drug abuse, angelic falsetto, queasy instrumentation, Drake-esque bangers, repentant ballads, undeniable pop gems-- but also a heavy dose of new avenues pursued. For one, the album's smack-dab in the '80s with its samples, sounds, and influences. While Tesfaye expertly mimicked Michael Jackson on a few BBTM singles, he's out here emulating the decade's weirder, more moody mainstays, like David Bowie, Tears For Fears, and Prince, which better suit his emo tendencies. There's also a mush lusher use of live instrumentation-- white-hot electric guitar on "Secrets" and "Sidewalks," brighter keyboard all around, and some top-notch bass guitar throughout. The most important new additions, though, come from inside Tesfaye himself.
This is by no means the most mature or well-written album you'll hear all year, but for a Weeknd project, it's far and away the winner in those categories. Yes, Tesfaye will still make your eyes roll with idiotic lo mein double entendres or needlessly graphic descriptions of road head, but for once, it seems like he's writing about himself from all angles, not just giving us the most appealing side of his stories. Starboy follows a narrative so loose that you can almost hear the keystrokes of Genius/KTT armchair theorists in between songs (is Stargirl his ex, Bella Hadid??), but in it, Tesfaye cycles through *gasp* normal romantic emotions, for once abandoning the aloof detachment that defined his persona. He's still spiteful, reluctant even, but captures that with a mature gaze-- "I just can't say that I don't love you." Although he still doesn't give many interviews, we've learned that at least some of House Of Balloons' destructive mindset is truly a part of Tesfaye's psyche, and here, he confronts it for the first time. Thankfully, this doesn't result in some preachy, therapist's couch blustering, but rather some more entertaining, intriguing content. He chuckles about winning a Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Award for a song about "a face numbing off a bag of blow," fantasizes about going out the auto-asphyxiation route, a la David Carradine, and lusts after a girl who'll "kill [him] for that paper." Self-awareness not only keeps him honest, it also emphasizes the unique aspects of his personality without feeling overly curated.
Starboy is overlong, a product of new "album equivalent" streaming rules, its second half being weighed down by too many similarly-paced songs that fail to distinguish themselves with unique sounds or moods. The five song stretch between the two excellent Future collabs, "Six Feet Under" and "All I Know," has some decent enough moments, but the album would feel tighter and more complete if they were relegated to bonus track status. Even still, the album's far less uneven on the whole than BBTM, which veered between "The Hills" nihilism and "In The Night" jauntiness, and Kiss Land, which had a more consistent vibe, but only to the detriment of its bland songwriting and production. In finding and exploring his personality, Tesfaye seems to have also picked up some tricks about mood and curation that extend beyond merely sounding cool.
With Tyler's Cherry Bomb, Clams' 32 Levels, that bangin' new xx track, and now Starboy, it finally seems like the alumni of the blog-era "mystery" post have achieved balance between artistic dignity and doing what they want, not what's expected of them. In Tesfaye's case, he's found a way to continue making coke-centric songs about women while no longer coming off like a dead-eyed teen hypebeast. People who have never liked him probably won't find much new to love on Starboy, but for the day ones, it supplies the old Abel we crave while offering glimpses of his path forward, from YouTube anonymity to superstardom.