On Starboy, The Weeknd transitions from a lone hedonist to global pop star

Editor’s note: In the run up to the 60th Annual Grammy Awards on 28 January 2018, Firstpost will be reviewing all the major albums from among the nominees. We’re starting with The Weeknd’s Starboy.

When The Weeknd released ‘Starboy’; the first single from his album of the same name, the transition was complete. In the song’s music video, we see The Weeknd’s pre-Starboy persona smothered to death. What we get is a more polished, more confident version of The Weeknd. He gets rid of his much famed hair and becomes aware of his position in contemporary pop music. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s journey to global stardom is achieved. The album Starboy is a near perfect encapsulation of The Weeknd’s rise to the top, and the troubles that new found celebrity drags along with itself.

At the beginning of The Weeknd’s career, his identity was unknown. His fans were captivated by the three tracks (‘What You Need’, ‘Loft Music, and ‘The Morning’) he uploaded on YouTube back in 2010, but had no idea who The Weeknd was. Most thought The Weeknd was a band. Even though Drake — a fellow Canadian artist who was just an album old back in 2011 — featured The Weeknd’s music on his blog, his identity remained largely mysterious. Abel was shy and it was hard for him to be in front of the camera. He chose to communicate only through Twitter and made minimal public appearances. In his very first interview, the Weeknd called himself ‘boring’. Four years later, armed with global hits such as ‘Earned It’, ‘Often’, ’Can’t Feel My Face’, and ‘The Hills’, The Weeknd is more than just recognisable.

If you’re looking for Trilogy-era sounds on Starboy, you won’t find it. Trilogy, the collection of Abel’s first three EPs, possesses a sound that is dreamy, drowsy and spectacularly drug-infused. He sings about his vices; the unstoppable urge to drift from one woman to another, his compulsive need to stay inebriated, and the realisation that his fate is sealed. A dreary atmosphere stretches across the length of Trilogy. Listening to Trilogy is like looking outside the window of a moving train; it all feels new, but yet somehow familiar. Trilogy‘s nocturnal tunes — its intoxicating beats muddled with The Weeknd’s vigorous yet spent voice — created an R&B sound that hasn’t been matched ever since.

Trilogy (2012) and Starboy (2016)

Trilogy (2012) and Starboy (2016)

Starboy, the third studio album by The Weeknd, presents him in a different light. Starboy is a reflection on the impact that the massive success of Beauty Behind the Madness has had on The Weeknd’s life. The title track, a club hit across the globe, is about Abel telling his fans that they are responsible for the change in his life. “Look what you’ve done,” he sings as he tells us about his desolate house and the enemies he has been making.

On ‘Reminder’, The Weeknd jokes about getting nominated for a Kids’ Choice Awards for singing a song about snorting an insane amount of cocaine. With tracks like ‘Sidewalks’, ‘Six Feet Under’, and ‘All I Know’, The Weeknd has adopted a sound heavily influenced by hip-hop. His attempt to make an R&B and hip-hop record of grand proportions is almost accomplished; but this album, after the first eight tracks, starts to seem lengthy, something you would never feel while listening to Trilogy; a record over two hours long.

Starboy is a result of some impressive collaborations. Daft Punk have produced two singles on the record; ‘Starboy‘ and ‘I Feel It Coming‘. The latter has all the qualities of an iconic song; its fresh, sunny sound is enriched by Daft Punk’s production and is everything you expect a real disco banger to be. From Kendrick Lamar on ‘Sidewalks‘, Future on ‘All I Know‘, and Lana Del Rey on ‘Stargirl Interlude‘, the sheer amount of variety on the record should have been stellar, but fails to leave an everlasting mark. A song with Lamar and The Weeknd could’ve been a song for the ages, but it isn’t. There’s a sense of being left underwhelmed after you’re done with the album even though Starboy in no way is a bad record. The tracks that really stand out are ‘Party Monster‘, ‘Secrets‘, ‘True Colors’ and ‘Die For You‘. You catch a glimpse of the old Weeknd on ‘Party Monster with its hypnotic beats and lyrics about Abel’s inability to control his demons. On other tracks, The Weeknd sings about infatuation, staying truthful and finding love: a side of him you haven’t seen before.

Starboy is an important record as it marks a new chapter in Abel’s life. All of The Weeknd’s records, from the first EP House of Balloons to Starboy, has captured a different chapter in his life. The dark, wistful tales of sex and drugs sung with a swooning falsetto on Trilogy is as significant as the glimmering excess of Starboy. The Weeknd hasn’t really traded the life of pills, potions and powder for finding love and sobering up, no; he has merely immersed himself in a different form of excess: fame and money. The dissolution and haziness of Abel’s older albums has been replaced by the loud, dynamic energy of Starboy. What comes next could take us back to the past, or show us an all new chapter in the life of the enigma that is The Weeknd.