Toronto’s The Weeknd today revealed the title of his third studio album, ‘Starboy’, though the announcement was somewhat eclipsed by the internet’s reaction to his new hairdo. Such are the perils of being one of the most distinctive figures in modern pop.
The first track from that new album, also named ‘Starboy’, similarly sees him adopt a sound more toned-down than his previous work. Early mixtapes such as ‘House of Balloons’ were sleazy R&B dispatches from house parties that have slipped from hedonism into horror shows, their austere production echoing the cold, sweat-slicked isolation of a nasty comedown. Last year’s mainstream breakthrough ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, featuring monster hit single ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, wrapped the formula up in a Michael Jackson-like pop gloss, but retained the druggy desperation.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) September 21, 2016
Yet The Weeknd appears to have cleaned up his act with this latest song, which features French dance duo Daft Punk. No, it’s nowhere near as light and fluffy as their 2013 smash single ‘Get Lucky’, but the chaos of Tesfaye’s trademark tumultuous sound has been rounded off somewhat. There is subtlety here: the brittle percussion, the crisp backing vocals – which seem to have been fed through a vocoder – and the lilting piano notes. It’s a long way from the blood-curdling scream that featured on the ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ track ‘The Hills’.
There is, of course, darkness in the track, but the pain is muted. “Look what you done,” The Weeknd half-sings, half-speaks, a refrain that recurs through the song. This isn’t the sound of an musician diluting his sound in a bid commercial success – it’s the sound of someone so established and confident that he doesn’t need to lean so heavily on the tropes that made him famous.
Nor does it sound like a Daft Punk song. The producers’ work is also understated, leaving a deal of space, not overcrowding the track as they did on some of their last album, ‘Random Access Memories’. As a result, ‘Starboy’ is cool and breezy, but somewhat forgettable. It’s certainly not bad, but seems unlikely to capture the world’s imagination as ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ did.