In her book Future Sex, Emily Witt takes a long look at the way technology and contemporary culture have shaped sex and love in our lives today. Reviewing online dating and internet pornography, she offers a short history of how digital sex culture progressed from something seedy in the darker corners of the web to something ubiquitous; in a few decades, we’ve moved from unmoderated chat rooms to the sleek, chaperoned product design of Tinder, from gritty, amateur pornos to the soft lighting and professionalism of a billion-dollar industry. This shift, according to Witt, has resulted from a conscious marketing maneuver, the move to what she calls a “clean, well-lighted space” that can attract a wider audience.
As I read Future Sex, I thought of Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, who has made a similar transition over the past five years. In 2011, he released three extraordinary, anonymous mixtapes that channeled the hedonism at the back of the club while embracing the darker consequences of debauchery. Then came a crawl towards mainstream success: Drake features, festival appearances, a record deal and a studio debut. But it was his last record that vaulted him to new heights: Beauty Behind the Madness topped the Billboard 200 and produced three singles that simultaneously held the top three spots on the Hot R&B Songs chart, a historical achievement. Now, on his new album Starboy, The Weeknd attempts to duplicate that success by moving deeper into a clean, well-lighted space.
This may be the natural career move, but it’s a difficult one nonetheless. As the title suggests, Starboy finds the Weeknd coming to terms with superstardom while struggling to balance new ideas, old themes (really just one: gratuitous sex), and the commercial appeal of Beauty Behind the Madness. The result is middling, an ambitious 78 minutes of crisp, clean, and expensive production that appeals to The Weeknd’s strong pop sensibilities but often falls flat.
To its credit, Starboy offers big names and some new sounds. Both the title track and album closer “I Feel It Coming” feature Daft Punk, arguably the most impressive get for anyone’s record these days. But the songs are… pretty good, at best. They push The Weeknd’s sound in new directions that are interesting but ultimately forgettable. “False Alarm,” an album highlight, is a fast, synth-driven screamer of a track unlike anything The Weeknd has ever done. Kendrick Lamar swings by for the guitar-heavy track “Sidewalks” and earns his paycheck, but the verse is hardly memorable. Tesfaye claims to be influenced by the Smiths, Bad Brains, Talking Heads, and Prince on this record, which you can almost hear on “Rockin’” and “A Lonely Night”.
Fans of the last record will be pleased to see Max Martin, who produced mega-hit “Can’t Feel My Face”, return on “Love to Lay”. But where the former track channeled the darkness at heart of the best Weeknd songs, the latter is a straight-up pop-ballad, sumptuous but banal. Expect it to chart, briefly. Future is back after connecting with The Weeknd on “Low Life” for the bass-heavy slow-burner “All I Know”. Lana del Rey also returns, briefly on “Party Monster” and completely on “Stargirl Interlude”. In an interview last year, Tesfaye remarked, “[Lana] is the girl in my music,” the ideal muse for the drugged out hedonism of his early work. Now Lana is literally his subject, cast as the Stargirl that “take[s] down that tequila down by the liter,” who Tesfaye’s Starboy loosely chases across the album.
The fact that there is a Stargirl might be the most meaningful change for The Weeknd on Starboy. He’s been chasing women since House of Balloons, but he’s never chased one woman, so singly and ardently. There’s a pivot here, from predator to suitor, albeit an imperfect suitor. The songs here retain the drugs and the sex, but they’ve traded in their aimless hunger for a specific desire. Consider “Party Monster”, which sounds the most like a typical Weeknd song on the record. He’s bumping lines of coke and waking up with strangers in bed, but he’s less bothered by the habit than he is by one girl in particular. For the most part, Starboy is a collection of R&B love songs dedicated to the Stargirl. They’re a tad racier than your average love song, but they’re love songs just the same, clean and well-lit, ready for consumption.
The price of this broader appeal is the loss of the grim introspection that made the Weeknd’s discography so interesting to date. When Tesfaye sang “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me” on “The Hills”, he struck the perfect balance between a mainstream sound and the dark self-awareness of his lifestyle. But on “Party Monster”, he needs Lana del Rey to sing, “You’re paranoid” back to him because he seems to have forgotten.
That may be deliberate, though. Tesfaye recently told Zane Lowe, “It’s good to have darkness, because when the light comes, it’s that much better.” There are some signs on Starboy that Tesfaye isn’t moving into a clean, well-lighted space just for more hits; he may be tired of singing about the hedonism on which he based his career. On “Reminder”, the best look on Starboy at where The Weeknd may see himself, he laments one of the more surreal moments in the Beauty Behind the Madness cycle: “I just won a new award for a kid’s show/ Talking bout a face coming off a bag of blow./ I’m like, goddamn bitch, I am not a teen choice.” It’s lines like these that reveal that the overlap between the old Weeknd, the anonymous fiend from Toronto, and Abel Tesfaye, the Grammy-winning and Academy Award-nominated superstar, is frustratingly small.
As the Weeknd tries to find himself in that overlap while defending his spot atop the charts, he ends up losing much of the best quality of his music: the unflinching look at consequences of his lifestyle, the gradual physical and spiritual corrosion. Without that awareness, his debauchery is dull, especially when added such clean and colorful production engineered for Top 40. He seems like just another census taker Kanye has sent to tally bad bitches at Equinox. It’s a shame, because as Tesfaye notes on “Reminder”, The Weeknd has inspired a lot of imitators. Instead of moving forward on Starboy, he ends up sounding like one of them. B MINUS