In 2015, Abel Tesfaye invited you to “Tell Your Friends” of his vanities. He glowered, proud and dour: “I’m that nigga with the hair / Singin’ bout poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches, livin’ life so trill.” It was a custom introduction, readied for the listener who had discovered the music he makes as The Weeknd above ground, via simpatico channels like Ariana Grande records and 50 Shades of Grey. His hair had grown over like a willow, a project begun around five years ago, post–House of Balloons, his mixtape debut.
In 2016, the first year following his cresting of the pop category on Beauty Behind the Madness, he has entered a new phase. He’s a household name now; he can tell your friends himself. He cut the locks off, paring down his physical profile. The art for his new album, Starboy, is an attempted identity reveal, saturated in the primary colors of Hype Williams’s Belly and 1960s pop art. “r.i.p. ‘@abelxo’,” he posted, after changing his digital handles to @TheWeeknd. Yet the ceremony might have been immaterial, considering how easily Starboy follows the path The Weeknd had previously lurked.
The way is littered with hanging chandeliers, white lines, sunken luxury roadsters — all the relics marking the blasé subclass of the nouveau riche. The Weeknd has selected himself as their bard. The people of Starboy are transitory women and their permanent male adversaries, the standard demographic of The Weeknd’s glossy underworld. “Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name,” he says on “Party Monster,” after comparing her to Angelina Jolie and Selena. With a touch of kitsch, he references certain stories of celebrity morbidity, like James Dean’s crash and David Carradine’s fatal autoerotic asphyxiation. On more than one track, we hear a brag that’s become a staple in The Weeknd’s world of established fame: “All my niggas blew up like propane / All these R&B niggas so lame,” on “Reminder.” Just once — on “Sidewalks,” produced by Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad — does Tesfaye try full-throated autobiographical earnestness, with Kendrick Lamar elaborating.
The Weeknd’s recent summits have something to do with the broader implications of genre, sound, and how both may be changing. The year 2011 inaugurated both The Weeknd and solo Frank Ocean as bearers of an avant-garde face of R&B. The Weeknd’s more recent trajectory into pop derives explicitly and expertly from the crowning decade of the 1980s, with a rare asceticism in his craft. In interviews, he has expressed a reverence for the planning and paring down necessary to make, say, a track like “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Starboy finds The Weeknd again celebrating the virtue of textural pop music. He mines dance beats reminiscent of Fame-era Bowie on the slightly spectral “Secrets.” He knowingly pushes Michael Jackson vocal invocations in strange spots, like the grim simpering on “Six Feet Under,” assisted by a shadowy Future. Some conventions he spurns — a minority of these songs have strict choruses. Lyrically, Starboy can boast exasperatingly unimaginative formulas. “Got a sweet Asian chick, she go lo mein” clocks as tedious; “Girl, come show me your true colors,” on “True Colors,” registers as surprisingly dull, especially considering the quiet, slow-jam intimacy of the track itself. To cringe at the campiness probably endorses the point. There’s a word, somewhat archaic, for the cycle of sublimity and triviality that Starboy constructs: bathos.
When he points to insecurity on the sinewy ballad “Die for You,” the frankness is endearing: “It’s hard for me to communicate the thoughts that I hold,” he admits. That glimmer of vulnerability is as irresistible as the well-articulated cavalier insecurities, the bargains between bodies that yield no payouts. The Weeknd’s willingness to expose his singing, to embrace his head voice, is the mark of an artist who prefers work over ego. He is open, too, when he dances: “Mania,” Starboy’s 12-minute visual accessory, is full of his now-signature extroversion.
On certain songs, the artist introduces some brightness to his brand of conspiratorial venality. “Secrets” is the first. “A Lonely Night,” a hand-clap-and-synth two-stepper, sounds like an Off the Wall reject in the best way. It’s there, too, in the Daft Punk tracks that bookend the project. “Starboy,” the opening track and first single, pairs an agile drum pattern with spare piano, a dark translation befitting the self-elected “motherfucking starboy.” “I Feel It Coming” is perhaps an overly genial closer for this project — even just hearing The Weeknd using the pronoun “we” in an affirmative sense is genuinely jarring. Nonetheless, the French duo’s appearances on this album (as well as those by Max Martin and Cashmere Cat) are a reminder that even at his moodiest, he’s always encouraged dance.
One woman — a real woman — appears on Starboy. Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd have collaborated before, on 2015’s “Prisoner.” He thinks of her as both an exception to and a stereotype of the idea of women, a logic that motivates their interrelated worlds. “She’s the girl in my music and I’m the guy in her music,” he once said. She came back to co-write “Party Monster,” Starboy’s second track, and “Stargirl Interlude” is essentially a Lana Del Rey song on a Weeknd project, with the artist himself floating in only at the end. It’s the moment when the artifice of Starboy is most visible — and most captivating.