Album Review – Starboy – The Weeknd


The Weeknd can do no wrong, it appears.  A little over a year since the release of his mind-blowing major label debut Beauty Behind the MadnessStarboy has been eagerly anticipated and there’s no question that the hype machine has been in overdrive ever since the album was first announced.  It’s setting records too, including being streamed well over 36 million times in the first 24 hours of its release on Spotify breaking the previous record held by fellow Canadian Justin Bieber.

Rather than rush to provide a review of this album, I’ve taken the approach of listening to the disc over the last few days and allowing it to grow on me.  While the album lacks the dark, atmospheric feel of its predecessor, there are numerous moments of pop brilliance and the record definitely has some house influence to it, which may or may not be the result of working with electronic music masters (and my heroes) Daft Punk on the two tracks that open and close the album.

The title track and lead single was met with mixed reactions from fans of both the Weeknd and Daft Punk, many stating that this was the wrong direction for the French duo to go in and that their vocals efforts were lacking when paired with the Weeknd and his incredibly powerful voice and lyrical abilities.  Nevertheless, it is a strong R&B opener and Daft Punk’s appearance, while admittedly understated, certainly lends an air of credibility to not only the track, but the album as a whole.  “Party Monster” follows and this is probably the closest we find to the Weeknd going back to his Beauty Behind the Madness sounds with an intoxicated-sounding sonic backdrop and repeated refrain “woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name“.  The lyrical references to another night of hard drinking and cocaine permeate the track and seque right into the rock-influenced “False Alarm”.  The record’s mood shifts to an up-tempo vibe on “Rockin'” which wouldn’t sound out of place in a set of garage house with old-school synth stabs and clear classic house feel.

“Secrets” has become one of my favourite tracks on this album.  The house influence shines through hear as well, with the heavy kick drum and clap rhythm providing a solid foundation over which prominent samples of the Tears for Fears classic “Pale Shelter” are placed.  The chorus is a direct interpolation of The Romantics‘ hit “Talking In Your Sleep” and there’s some nice filtering at the beginning making this a great choice to open up an R&B set with.

“Stargirl Interlude” is really not much more than a cameo appearance from frequent Weeknd collaborator Lana del Rey with Weeknd adding a few sparse vocal lines at the end.  “Sidewalks” steers the album back on track courtesy of an appearance by hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar and continues through to “Love to Lay”, another up-tempo number with some house vibes to it.

Sadly, after “A Lonely Night” the album starts to take on a bloated feel and most of the tracks to follow up until the closer seem out of place and only serve to suck the energy out of the record by consisting of series of ballads.  They seem like filler and don’t come close to sounding as intriguing as “Angel” from his previous record.  “I Feel It Coming”, again featuring Daft Punk, closes out the disc and stands out as one of the highlights of the album.  It serves as a nice, feel-good cut which might not have been completely out of place on Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories.  Their vocal presence is more prominent and it feels like they had more impact on the overall production than they did with “Starboy”.  In spite of the track’s brilliance, it feels oddly out of place after the glut of ballads that precede it, but nonetheless ends the album on an upbeat note.

With few peers to compete head-to-head with him at the moment, the R&B spotlight is firmly on the Weeknd with this release and to say the album has been successful so far is an huge understatement.  That said, while there are a lot of great moments on this record, overall it just doesn’t feel like as strong a record as Beauty Behind the Madness.  While it sounds incredibly well-produced on each track, there is a certain lack of cohesiveness and flow over the album’s 18 tracks and it feels like it could be trimmed down to about 12.  In spite of this, the Weeknd’s vocals and lyrical dreamscapes remain some of the best out there right now and Starboy is definitely a worthwhile listen for fans of pop, R&B and dance grooves.

Rating:  3.5/5


Classic House Series Episode #27 – Wake Up(Shay-Ama) – Nu Civilization

One of challenges (and joys) of playing a great classic house set is picking just the right track to kick things off.  With a genre based on the concept of classic records that have stood the test of time, the possibilities are endless.  Name one good choice and the DJ next to you will name something completely different, but arguably just as valid.  A strong start will inevitably set the tone for things to come, and Nu Civilization‘s gorgeous anthem “Wake Up(Shay-Ama)” has done the trick rather nicely for me many, many times.

I first became aware of this record by way of its inclusion on the 4th installment of the revered Techno Trip compilation series that was the brainchild of iconic Toronto DJ and radio host Chris Sheppard.  Sheppard’s approach to this series leaned heavily on the underground hardcore, break-beat and techno tracks making the rounds on Toronto’s early rave scene but each release in the series offered a couple of proper house tunes and this was one that immediately stood out for me.

Composed and produced by the Toby Brothers, “Wake Up” has all the elements that make up a great classic house record:  early drum machine programming and percussion, synth, piano, a killer bass hook and, of course, an uplifting, soulful vocal with an instant sing-along quality that sticks in your head well into the next day.  The arrangement is rather simple and that’s what works so well for this record.  That, and the fact that there’s an actual song contained within it (and a great one, at that) and you have a deep house classic with a positive message that aches with soul and a groove you can just lose yourself to.  Still a killer cut to drop to this day despite its somewhat underrated status; bonus points if you get your hands on the radio cut from none other than Mr. Frankie Knuckles himself with the call to the dancefloor “Hey, Frankie, tell ’em to wake up”.

Classic House Episode #26 – It’s Gonna Be Alright – Pussy 2000

In dance music, the concept of combining elements of two of more complete songs to create what is now known as a “mash-up“, “edit” or whatever term is being talked about today, is nothing new.  Ever since audio editing software became commercially available, and with even more primitive methods than that having been used before, people having been mashing up their favourite tunes and from about 1999-2002 it seemed like a new bootleg mix (often of hit-or-miss quality) was hitting websites every day.  Thankfully, some of these were good enough to impress the record labels owning the original tracks used in the mix to allow the remixers, mostly bedroom DJs and aspiring producers, to have the new “mash-up” version commercially released.

This is exactly the case with what began as a bootleg release from the production team known as Pussy 2000 (Andy Jones and Steven James Travell) and what would be commercially released as “It’s Gonna Be Alright” on V2 Music in the US and internationally.  The mash-up combines musical elements from the original six-minute version of the Clash anthem “Rock the Casbah” with the soaring vocals of Sterling Void on his 1987 hit “It’s Alright“.  The two tunes fit together perfectly and with a little bit of pitch shifting to create the groove, you get one serious heavy, funky and fantastic disco house anthem.

The track did extremely well in Canada and received the remix treatment from Chicago house legend DJ Sneak.  The original mix does the most damage on the dancefloor with the sing-along nature of the vocals and the genius idea of turning a a record by The Clash into a house track.  It’s a great one to pull out any time, and older crowd will definitely appreciate the ingredients in this little treat.  Bonus if you can get your hands on the Hard Pussy mix for a deeper darker take on the original.

Classic House Series Episode #25 – Chicago Southside – CZR

When it comes to sampling vintage material to make house music, some songs a simply a no-brainer.  Such is the case with this sublime cut from Chicago producer Cesar Hernandez a.k.a. CZR who cheekily turned a classic funk groove into 1996’s dancefloor destroyer “Chicago Southside”.

If you’re familiar with Gene Chandler‘s 1979 disco hit “When You’re #1″, then you should know from hearing the lyric “On the south side of Chicago, how they boogie…..” that this one was just waiting to be turned into a house music anthem.  CZR grabs his disco shears and incorporates several sections of Chandler’s tune thus creating an anthem that gives nod to his native Chicago and simply encourages everybody in the venue to hit the floor and get their collective groove on.  First appearing on CZR’s 1996 EP “Another Level“,  “Southside” would later see remixes courtesy of fellow legends Paul Johnson and Rick Garcia together with a re-rub from CZR himself.  CZR would go on to release tracks on a plethora of labels including the legendary Subliminal Records and continues to produce and DJ to this day.

This one definitely best suits a proper house crowd, an audience that knows their history and who will appreciate the simple genius of this great record.  If you’re feeling bold, toss this one on during a late-night house set and watch the dancefloor erupt!

Classic House Series Episode #24 – My Feeling – Junior Jack

Despite the hoards of advantages that the digital age has brought us in terms of accessing music, I really miss record shopping.  I still do it as often as I can, but I miss the days when my Saturday afternoons were always blocked off for a trip to Yonge & Dundas in downtown Toronto where I would troll the record stores and HMV to grab the latest bangers, browse the hard-to-find classics and, if I was lucky, hear something completely at random that would shift the mood of the entire trip (and my purchasing priorities).

Such was indeed the case one Saturday afternoon in 1999 when just as I was sorting out which slices of wax I would be taking home with me from Toronto’s legendary DJ institution Play De Record, one of the staff put on a MASSIVE slice of disco house with a sound that was very similar to the Stardust anthem “Music Sounds Better With You” and a vocal hook that just screamed to me “you need to buy this track and play it out tonight“.  A few seconds later, a copy of “My Feeling” by Italian-born producer Junior Jack (Vito Lucente) was in hand and the itch began.  I couldn’t wait to get to the club that night to throw this one on.

Yes, the Stardust influence is all over this track (right down to the solo kick drum bridge and the phaser on the drums during the breakdown), but Lucente’s use of two separate samples that work perfectly together are the glue that gives this one its shine.  The backing track consists of a sampled loop taken from Sister Sledge‘s endearing classic “One More Time” from their magnificent third album We Are Family.  Once again, it’s a Chic-produced sample that does the trick here, pitched up to give it that disco house feel.  On top of that we have a few vocal snippets from the top 10 US R&B smash “Saturday Love” from Cherelle & Alexander O’Neal to form the hook.  The instantly recognizable quality of the vocal sample over a classic disco house loop certainly continued the trend seen in recent releases from Phats & Small (“Turn Around“) and Armand van Helden (“U Don’t Know Me“) and Lucente’s track was well-received worldwide including peaking at #1 on the Canadian National Dance Chart.

When I did finally drop this one at the club that night, the results were as I expected:  we had an anthem on our hands.  It’s simple, somewhat formulaic and even corny to a point, but it worked wonders wherever I played it (and I played it out a lot) and I even got the chance to meet Junior Jack before he played a guest set on the long-running dance music show Electric Circus on MuchMusic.  He signed my vinyl copy and I was very happy to see this one get a lovely 12″ x 2 release on Defected Records not long afterwards.  A great addition to any disco house set, this one still gets the crowds going.


Classic Compilation Review – My House In Montmartre – Various Artists

My House In Montmartre

When I first got into house music, compilations were a great way to keep up to date with what was hot at the time while being exposed to new music as well.  With the advent of music going digital, the compilation has in many ways gone the way of the dinosaur, however, if you regularly troll for used CDs and vinyl like I do, you’ll be able to appreciate the value in coming across a great compilation that sees a lot of classic tunes assembled in one place.  And for anyone who is looking for an enjoyable lesson in classic French house music, My House In Montmartre remains a great place to start.

Released by acclaimed electronic label Astralwerks in conjunction with MTV, the disc serves as a real “who’s who” of the French House music scene in 2002.  The Daft Punk crew is well represented with Stardust’s Music Sounds Better With You appropriately appearing as the opening cut, my favourite cut from “Discovery“, “High Life” coming in at track 3 and the inclusion of their brilliant remix of I:Cube‘s “Disco Cubizm“.  Roule label-mate DJ Falcon‘s legendary remix of Cassius‘ “La Mouche” is a welcome addition in its full-length form, together with Alan Braxe & Fred Falke‘s live bass anthem “Intro” which received a huge response worldwide when originally released.

Other classic cuts include the Buffalo Bunch remix of Phoenix‘s “If I Ever Feel Better (I’ll Go to the Disco)“, “Grandlife” – We In Music and “Lucky Star” – Superfunk.  Add all of these to a plethora of great tracks and remixes from the likes of Air, Alex Gopher and others and you have yourself one very versatile comp which would well suit anyone looking for a thorough snapshot of what was hot when French House was at its peak.

This one is definitely worth tracking down and is very DJ-friendly given that the majority of the tracks appear in full-length form.  In fact, grab two copies if you can and work the floor with these classics!

Classic House Series Episode #23 – The New Wave – Daft Punk

When Daft Punk burst on to the North American consciousness in late 1996, for most of us it was via the mind-blowing, genre smashing throb of their first single released through Virgin Records, Da Funk.  Combined with its surreal video, convincing most of their fans that the group consisted of one dude in a dog mask, it was a fitting way to introduce the French lads to the world and the critical and commercial response to the single was explosive.

The single was, however, not the first or even second time the duo had appeared on wax.  After signing their very first record contract with Scotland’s Soma Records imprint, their first E.P. began making its rounds and is the real source of the early buzz behind the two mysterious producers.  Entitled “The New Wave, this is the first official release by Daft Punk and while it may not quite have had the success of “Da Funk“, it was our first introduction to what would become some of the most crucial components of Daft Punk’ signature sound.

The title track of the E.P. is a raw, almost primitive slice of techno delivered at a much faster tempo than we would see on later releases.  Appearing in its original form and an edited version, the sonic sheen that would emerge quickly via their future releases is not quite there, but plenty of their other trademark flourishes take the forefront:  the heavily compressed sound of the track, booming percussion, and the in-your-face feel of the mix were all early clues as to where they group might take their sound to next.  The track does itself sound like an unfinished production, but also strikingly similar to a cut from their debut album that was heavily featured in their live sets at the time.  Flipping the record over would provide us with the answers we were seeking.

Side 2 of the E.P. opens with “Assault”, a slightly more polished, but again minimal piece of hypnotic techno.  You don’t hear quite as many layers of sounds in this one compared to “The New Wave“, but the track does serve its purpose; repetitive, late-night, almost acid-sounding techno with a few switch-ups on the drums to keep things moving.

The final track would also prove to be the final mix of “The New Wave” complete with a new title.  The penultimate track on their debut album “Homework” first appears to close out the E.P. under the title “Alive(New Wave Final Mix).  The sonic similarities between the two track should now be fairly obvious, but compared to its original form, this mix of “Alive” is an absolute MONSTER.  Big sounding doubled kicks, stabbing synth lines and an enormous bassline close out this record on a massive note and shows us the full potential that Tom and Guy-Man had right from the get-go.  The E.P. was also released on Italy’s UMM records and is not impossible to find.  This is one release every serious fan or collector of Daft Punk music should own, or at the very least, listen to so they can experience what it was like to hear the first tunes to come from these legendary producers.