Only The Weeknd can pull off a music video as brutal and unapologetic as the one for False Alarm. Directed by Ilya Naishuller, who is well known for his first person action choreography, the short film revels in its guns, grenades, and gratuitous violence, spawning incredibly creative comments on YouTube including but not limited to “why this n*gga always die in his videos” and “lol where’d his pineapple go”. Yet it’s not hard to look past Abel Tesfaye’s recent hair makeover when you’ve got such quality sounds coming from latest release Starboy. It’s still a familiar R&B mash-up of massive leads and chunky bass lines that’ll be stuck in your head for months to come. Innovation, though, wasn’t this release’s strong suit. At times, it felt like it was propped up by collaborators like Daft Punk and Lemar, or purely by similarities to his previously released chart toppers.
If there’s one way to describe why listeners flock to Tesfaye’s music, its this: You come for his unique, almost charmingly high pitched voice and you stay to hear the same voice sing about dirty, hedonistic things that would make your grandparents shudder in their armchairs. And judging by his previous two full albums, it almost seemed like it would be impossible to take this to new heights, but he’s done it. Between the almost hallucinogenic cocaine metaphors in “Bathroom stalls for the powder nose” of False Alarm to unashamedly describing fellatio with “Heaven in her mouth, got a hell of a tongue” in Ordinary Life, there’s something beautifully grimy and honest about his thematic vision that few other artists dare to do. Its carried him this far, and it’ll just about carry him with Starboy.
There are some hugely unforgettable melodies in Starboy. The muted driving chords in Secrets as “I hear the secrets that you keep” reverberates in searing vocals, or in Rockin’ which takes the I can’t feel my face route in an upbeat funk. Starboy is an R&B album at heart. Its a popular but safe aesthetic to develop when breaking out into the industry, or just wanting to refresh your image. It sounds good with its reliance on heavy beats and often minimalistic synths that emphasise vocals, helping to lend simple yet memorable tones. Yet its difficult to stick around in a genre that has its origins in the 40s, without being anything short than stellar, or being incredibly inventive. Its no wonder that artists like Drake, Beyoncé, and even Blood Orange in a more underground sort of way, have such staying power due to their constantly innovative writing. Just look at Hotline Bling, massively popular for its champagne toned plucking and not just because of Drake breaking it down on the dance floor. While Starboy is a good, and I’d even venture to say, very well compiled album, it just lacks a certain sense of novelty that was felt when his early albums were released. Take The Hills from last year for example. That song was like a bloody fog klaxon, attention seeking and commanding in its presence. Anyone who’s heard it once could recall its screaming, distorted chorus. Some of the songs in Starboy are aerosol horns in comparison. Good for a quick laugh and party, but there are many others like it. Too many.
The more popular tracks such as False Alarm (there’s a reason why this one keep coming up) which stuck to a more rock inspired direction, or I Feel It Coming, buoyed by Daft Punk’s strawberry flavoured 80s grooves and Rockin’ because of its immensely nostalgic references to I Can’t Feel My Face all have one thing in common. They’re set apart by a stylistic difference from the buttery smooth liquid synths against a catchy drum riff formula that makes up the majority of the rest of the album. It feels like the middle half of Starboy is a B side. Albeit a very good one. Regardless, this LP will undoubtedly be a massive hit, at least for a few months. A little musical blandness won’t even put a dent into 10-inch-thick double Grammy winning tunes that are just too damn catchy.