When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Ira Madison III, Doreen St. Félix, Sasha Geffen, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Charles Aaron, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Madison III: My relationship with The Weeknd is as stressful as my relationship with the pint of ice cream buried in the back of my freezer. It's not good for me, but sometimes it's the best thing ever. Other times, it makes me sick to my stomach. Loving The Weeknd is all about the right pairing. With Future on "Low Life"? I fucking love it. With the ghost of Michael Jackson screaming to be set free from the recording studio on "Can't Feel My Face," not so much. Being covered by Ellie Goulding on "High for This"? Excellent. On "6 Inch" with Beyoncé… hmmm, I feel like I like that song in spite of him. But the most perfect marriage of The Weeknd and a collaborator so far has been "Starboy" with Daft Punk. I'll even go as far as saying this is the best fucking song The Weeknd has made since his debut mixtapes. The Daft beat is effortless, as usual, and they've taken just the slightest bit of Giorgio Moroder influence from their last album without the camp of "Get Lucky." The Weeknd sounds fantastic — his voice is as frenetic as the beat and it immediately gets me lit from the first chords. This song is a fucking winner.
St. Félix: I won't go as far as saying this is The Weeknd's best collaboration, but I do actually love this song. He sounds a bit older, less inflated. The Weeknd's penchant for polysyllabic verse always registered as a just-okay approximation of what Mariah Carey does seamlessly. Against the muted, piano-framed Daft Punk beat, though, refined lines like "20 racks a table cut from ebony / She cut that ivory into skinny pieces" are clever. Who doesn't love a good coke simile? There are still two months out before we're slated to get Starboy the album, but I'm hoping they'll move the date up, because I'm curious to see his new direction. On the cover art, his hair is cut off like Samson, but the excellence of the track suggests our boy is gaining strength, not losing it.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m really glad that The Weeknd continues to grow up and turn corners. This sounds light-years away from his House of Balloons stuff, in both the sonic template and the actual writing. It’s like he’s found a way over the past couple of years to lean into that drug-fueled boastfulness that's somehow less insufferable. It suggests that his pockets, as a writer, are far deeper than I thought they were. I agree with Doreen, in that I’m tentative on saying this is his best collaboration, but it’s really close to the top.
Vozick-Levinson: Abel sounds fantastically cool here, agreed — but let's talk for another minute about the production on this song, which is just immaculate. I loved a few of the singles from Random Access Memories, but the album as a whole left me worrying that the shameless cheese artistes of "Digital Love" and "Da Funk" had aged into Serious Grammy Artists (snooze!). So I'm thrilled to see that Daft Punk have vaulted back to the weird, glossy future where they belong. The steady thump of the kick drum and the eerie whistle of the synth on the hook will make this song inescapable, but "Starboy" isn't chasing Fall 2016 trends; it's cruising past them with one smooth stride and a digitized laugh. Catch every other male pop star calling their managers with an ultimatum. This is slick vampire music, the song that Drake hears in his head when he gets lost in the mirror on his ceiling.
Aaron: I’m kinda lost on The Weeknd discussion that I’ve been hearing for the past two albums, which is sort of reflected in much of what’s been said above. Ever since Trilogy, while many have seen his music becoming more evolved, I’ve heard it trending more monochrome and monolithic and impenetrable, a vast, palatial swirl of sumptuously familiar pop-R&B sounds tweaked a bit here and there. His falsetto seems less creepily distinctive, less vampiric (to nod to Simon) – hence all the justifiable Michael Jackson comparisons. The scenarios of the songs strike me as less visually memorable, more like generic romantic pop-star vignettes. We moved from skeevy rented rooms to cathedrals and stadiums. I know I’m supposed to admire his maturation away from those temporal tales of drug-sodden, near-suicidal misogyny, but mostly I hear that evolution as the necessary compromise of a guy who wanted to be a superstar more than he wanted to be an eccentric mid-level artist. Early on, his boastfulness was stuffed with narcotic self-loathing (which in its naked openness felt unusual for such polished-sounding R&B), and which was also intriguing (and more easy for me to relate to, I suppose, as a self-loathing once-druggie who has spent time in skeevy rented rooms), but now the comfortable multi-car boastfulness seems just so typical. He’s an extremely talented guy, whom I’m still interested in, but I can’t share the group’s excitement for this track. It feels luxurious and performative. He’s now a guy who’s welcoming us to a tour of his manse, swooning spectacularly, and then returning to his boudoir where Drake’s accountant is giving him the 10 a.m. investment update. And Daft Punk, well, they’re lurking around somewhere, probably in the studio, checking serial numbers.
Geffen: The Weeknd has never found himself on more solid ground. He finally sounds free from the precarity that dominates most of his work to date, the impulse to throw himself into whatever nearby chaos he can find. "Starboy" describes a more stable rush, one that takes place in part inside a home, of all places. That foundation gives him leverage to transcend himself, to move from coked-out desperation to coked-out control. His voice has never sounded crisper, and the breathy syllables from Daft Punk underscore his trans-human yearning. But space is lonely, as is fame, and robots aren't much company. Eventually, starboys have to fall back to earth.