In preparation for The Weeknd’s release of Starboy, I decided it’d be the best time to refresh my memory of RnB that didn’t involve Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston.
After soaking in some R Kelly, and more recent acts like Angel and Kalin White, who are just as good as the Weeknd, especially in the broader sense of the RnB genre, Starboy dropped just in time with a few surprises. The Weeknd’s themes though still the same – drugs, cars, women, misogyny, sadness, and love – deviate from their dark RnB roots to radio friendly pop right from the start, and it’s a refreshing direction to take, now that people have noticed him.
Everyone from Max Martin, Diplo, Cashmere Cat, Daft Punk, Cirkut, Benny Blanco, Labrinth and the likes of collaborators like Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Lana Del Rey feature on some of the best tracks on the album. With RnB at its centre, pop, disco, funk, and a little bit of rock are sprinkled in to highlight what each one of these artists bring to Starboy. The titular lead track serves as an example of a good balance of disco and RnB, especially with the menacing drums looping in the background, transforming the Weeknd’s take on the excesses of life to highs rather than lows. Daft Punk, have an uncanny talent for mixing and matching vocal tones and their synthetic music as is evident on Starboy and I Feel It Coming. Taking advantage of Tesfaye’s high vocal register and falsetto, Starboy and I Feel It Coming are perfectly manipulated to sound like radio ready tracks and in my opinion may not have been as successful if it weren’t for the Weeknd featured on the vocals.
Party Monster and Reminder open with menacing beats but back up the tone with killer choruses on the former and well-paced verses on the latter with the slightly disappointing False Alarm sandwiched between them. False Alarm, feels like an afterthought that could’ve missed making it on the album, since its reception wasn’t as warm as the other singles earned upon their release. There’s a sample involved, a nod to his Ethiopian heritage, well intended but ill placed. Rockin’, with its pop-rock-RnB vibe feels like too many ideas were fused together to make a slightly disoriented mess of a song, since smart vocals and not wordplay is the Weeknd’s strong suit, but is banger nonetheless.
Redeeming himself on tracks like Secrets and True Colors, the Weeknd returns to smoother RnB fare without the darkness he often tends to favor on his tracks. There’s talk of love on the bright side on Secrets and True Colors, with the themes straying from a sense of wayward relationships to love with no conditions applied and for once directed to a woman with little or no misogyny implied. True Colors, on the other hand is better than Secrets partly due to Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat’s involvement. Cashmere Cat whose reputation of producing beats tailor made for RnB artists that use harmonies and vocal runs that fans hear on records that never make it to the radio, doesn’t disappoint.
The only collaborator off his debut returning to Starboy is his muse Lana Del Rey. With writing and vocal credits on Starboy, the Weeknd enlists his muse and her penchant for unearthly vocal runs, both on Party Monster and Stargirl – a record that features Lana on vocals while the Weeknd joins her at the end. Produced by Labrinth, the track serves as a reminder of the close friendship Lana and The Weeknd share. Despite collaborating with the likes of Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, the XO singer recruits his best friend on the album for a separate cut that elevates her to be his Stargirl, the only woman his music seems to subconsciously refer to. The chanteuse on the other hand, doesn’t let us down – hypnotic vocals about sex in the kitchen and falsetto vocals fill up nearly a minute and a half of the interlude – and made me want more from this pair.
Kendrick Lamar – rapper extraordinaire – in his first collaboration with the Canadian artist, brings his A-game. While Tesfaye’s vocals are autotuned to a slightly unacceptable level, it is Lamar’s unstructured yet smart wordplay on Sidewalks that really steal the show. The vocal bridge adds texture to the track, letting the instrumentation and vocals only step in when needed. One of the highlights of the album, this track is followed by Six Feet Under. A killer track featuring vocals from Future the rapper, it samples Metro Boomin and Ben Billion’s production off Low Life from Future’s album EVOL and continues where Beyonce’s 6 Inch Heels dropped off after the Weeknd featured on it. For once the woman in the Weeknd’s world is not a coke snorting, gold digger but a go getter and that marks a remarkable change in his view of the women in his life.
Love To Lay returns to pop fare by Max Martin and Ali Payami. Simple lyrics, drums, a simple melody and an RnB bridge characterize the track as does its follow up, A Lonely Night. The Weeknd’s claim that Prince influenced the sound on the album may be true but, the vocal style executed on this track alludes to Michael Jackson and the 80s synth movement. On Attention, Cashmere Cat returns to his role of a producer and adds vocals too, making it another standout on the album.
With a bevy of writers and producers including Cirkut, Savan Kotecha, and Max Martin, Ordinary Life juxtaposes life after fame, with religious and pop culture references. Taking inspiration from his mixtape days and Lana’s debut Born To Die, the artist’s muses about how his life isn’t ordinary after he shot to fame. The drug and sex fueled track takes you back to the debauchery the Weeknd indulges in quite regularly and for once reintroduces the listener to his earlier work. As if in direct opposition to Ordinary Life, Nothing Without You, has the singer pining for love and admitting his faults for once, stripping the playboy image down to reveal a hopeless, monogamous romantic. The Diplo produced track, introduces slow jams and doses of dance music but is edited perfectly to include the unique vision both the artists bring to the track.
All I Know, helmed by Cashmere Cat, works well with the sung verses, until its featured artist Future steps in. Now, I like mumble rap with auto tune done once in a while but, Future is starting to make this his signature style and this needs to stop. Future, does nothing but ruin the vibe with his style of rapping and the bars are insipid at best. If another rapper were featured or the feature dropped altogether, the track could work well. The autotune on the rapper’s voice draws attention away from the Weeknd’s organic, raw vocals and feels like auto tune was added to save the featured artist’s vocals from drowning the song far more than it needed to.
Die For You brings in elements of R Kelly’s vocals a la the Weeknd’s slow burner off his debut, Angel. There’s pain and loss minus the vulgarity and is the kind of slow burner that ironically got him that Teen Choice Award he mentioned on Reminder, even though he is no role model in his own words. With Die For You, the Weeknd’s vocals get the Cashmere Cat treatment and also stands out as one of the best tracks on the album. I Feel It Coming brings Daft Punk’s 80 synth back into vogue as an influential sound on this album and their collaborations stand out from the rest, purely due to the finesse lacing these tracks.
Abel Tesfaye does not disappoint. The direction he’s taking with this album isn’t the same one we’ve seen on his mixtapes and debut and that is a good thing. My only gripes are the use of autotune and Illangelo’s absence. The longtime producer is missing on this record and under his helming the Weeknd did release some amazing tracks. Their separation over creative differences certainly led to the inclusion of a few poorly conceived tracks, unavoidable I assume but, might bring cohesion to the record. Even with the weak songs, the Weeknd experiments with genres but to any listener who’s familiar with his sound, it feels safe. Pick up the album to see what fame feels like at the top, especially when you’re backed with an army of producers and the heavenly vocals of The Weeknd.