Perhaps no songwriter working today so uncomfortably blends an innate pop sensibility with a bottomless appetite for making utterly joyless, consistently mopey music as the Weeknd, né Abél Tesfaye. These qualities seem ripe to be punctured by a pair of neo-house masterminds, famous for their ecstatic, energetic arrangements and elaborate robot suits. But just as Daft Punk succeeded in harnessing Pharrell’s inherent charm on “Get Lucky,” condensing him into the sweet-voiced figurehead for a buoyant cheeseball anthem, the French duo manages to get the best out of their latest collaborator without effecting any real transformation from the artist’s usual lightweight sensibility. This isn’t much of a surprise, since as Random Access Memories confirmed, Daft Punk is now firmly entrenched in a second-act career as musical middle-men, connecting the widest-possible audiences with their personal brand of stylish retro-fetishism, moving away from the ebullient innovation that defined their earlier output.
Positioned as the bookends on his latest effort, Tesfaye’s two collaborations with the faceless pair end up splitting his existing Weeknd persona neatly in half, cleaving the sweet, sensitive sadboy Dr. Jekyll from his vindictive, ennui-stricken Mr. Hyde. The latter appears on the title track, which opens the album and offers its purest expression of angst-ridden isolation. As singles go, it doesn’t quite match the propulsive, self-destructive charge of “Can’t Feel My Face,” but it’s sleek and sinuous in a restrained minor key, matching perfectly with its caustic chronicle of the emptiness of small-time celebrity. Closing track “I Feel It Coming,” on the other hand, finds Tesfaye morphing into an oversexed, ersatz Michael Jackson, dropping his usual “love ’em and leave ’em” stance for a bid at tender sexual healing. It’s another standout, yet despite its surprising status as one of the coziest, most satisfying pop songs in recent memory, the track bears little organic connection to the rest of the album’s slickly produced parade of desolation and dread.
Starboy has been positioned as a major artistic transition point, down to a high-concept music video that depicts the brutal murder of the familiar, cartoonishly coiffed Weeknd by his newly shorn-scalped replacement. Any apparent growth here, though, is really just the cementing of a process begun on Kiss Land and perfected on Beauty Behind the Madness, remodeling an artistically marginal, genuinely interesting figure of musical menace into a toothless celebrity version thereof, espousing the same nihilistic themes in far cushier surroundings. The album’s title thus sums up its twinned focus on the highs and alienating lows of stardom—casting Tesfaye as a cold extraterrestrial opposite to David Bowie’s benevolent Starman—while serving as a fitting shorthand for a refusal to grow past pouting, sophomoric crankiness over the constraints of that celebrity.
So while Tesfaye can lash out all he wants at the indignity of winning a Teen Choice Award (as he does on the moody, simpering “Reminder”), his music doesn’t exactly challenge his status as an artist who—aside from a persistent undercurrent of deep-seated malice—makes easily digestible mall music that takes few risks and contains even fewer surprises. Starboy also does little to change the fact that, for all of Tesfaye’s adult themes and insinuations of world-weary wisdom, his writing is essentially teenaged in tenor, capable only of wide emotional swings, balancing its self-pitying poison-pen missives (“Party Monster,” “Secrets,” the Justin Bieber-aping “True Colors,”) with declarations of desperate, undying love (“Nothing Without You,” “Die for You”).
Starboy’s throng of snappy, cleverly constructed misery ballads solidifies the Weeknd as a particularly morbid outlier amid hip-hop’s sizable “ambivalent swagger” crowd, artists for whom decadence and bad behavior are rendered as joyless consequences of the lifestyle rather than material rewards. The best songs here, though, push toward something more expressive, from the flashy, ragged urgency of “False Alarm” to the refreshing candor of “Sidewalks,” which finds Tesfaye accessing new levels of self-awareness in an effort to match Kendrick Lamar’s dynamic, confessional flow. Recalling his own rags-to-riches story, Tesfaye stumbles upon a dynamic means of storytelling that might prove a viable way forward creatively, were he interested in shaking off the somnolent sulking that’s come to define his music. Otherwise, he comes off as a dirt-bag Drake without the insistent neuroses or eccentric charm, swaddled in an expansive misanthropy that only partially obscures his status as a middling lyricist prone to dropping exclamatory clunkers.
The album’s intertwined focus on death and sex reaches its peak on “Ordinary Life,” where a blithely described bit of road head blossoms into a James Dean-esque flameout fantasy, mixing goth lyrical theatrics (“Valhalla’s where all the righteous are led/Mulholland’s where all the damned will be kept”) with coolly overwrought production. Tesfaye returns again and again to the lazy lyrical device of lumping all his vices together as one imaginary adversary, equating the endless coterie of faceless, ill-bred females who proposition him with the drugs he just can’t resist taking and the soulless industry which keeps his appetites afloat. He remains an exceptionally talented vocalist, yet none of the many studio wizards represented in the album’s by-committee structure is capable of wrenching him out of his usual morose rhythms. To be fair, none of them really try, playing to his basic talents while also coddling his laziest inclinations, swaddling songs in scintillating soundscapes that coat these sour centers in layers of sweetness.