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 Madness, Starboy 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.