When The Weeknd was planning to shear off his dreadlock beehive a couple of months ago, the unanimous phrase of discouragement from those around him – “That’s your whole thing” – only spurred him on. Because really, Abél Tesfaye’s “whole thing” is turning his druggy R&B to gold. After a trio of lauded 2011 mixtapes and a tepid 2013 debut, the mysterious Toronto sadboy broke through in a big way with ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’, Spotify’s most-streamed album of 2015. Now, just over a year later, this bloated double album comes accompanied by the weight of expectation – will it take the 26-year-old up yet another level?
Well, there’s no mega-smash-in-waiting like ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ (surely now the cokehead’s love song of choice) but Tesfaye’s still capable of brilliant bluntness about intoxication and sex – usually at the same time. On ‘Rockin’ he’s on Adderall and spurning a clingy girl. On ‘Ordinary Life’ he gets wistful midway through a 45mph blow-job: “I can feel her teeth when I drive on a bump…she don’t know what I’ve done”. On Lana Del Rey co-write ‘Party Monster’, the hook is a little hackneyed (“Woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name”) but it still does its earworming job perfectly.The best thing on here is the juddering ‘Secrets’ – where a jealous Tesfaye lowers his voice to reprimand a lying girlfriend – but more focus will inevitably go to the collaborations. Del Rey herself pipes up on ‘Stargirl Interlude’, a deceptively delicate ditty set in a kitchen. On ‘Sidewalks’ Kendrick Lamar delivers a typically killer verse over what sounds like one of Jonny Greenwood’s Radiohead guitar lines. Then there are the two Daft Punk features that bookend the album: opener ‘Starboy’ is a moody acknowledgement of his celebrity, while closer ‘I Feel It Coming’ is a beauty, on which Tesfaye’s trembling vocal unmistakeably echoes Michael Jackson’s. Unfortunately, Daft Punk mar their subtle, syncopated production with a rude vocoder intrusion.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the obvious 2016 one: length. Streaming charts favour albums with more songs, like Drake’s 80-minute ‘Views’. At 18 tracks and 68 minutes, it’s impossible not to see ‘Starboy’ aiming for those algorithms.
Deep into the album it becomes a slog, with too much banal, forgettable fluff like ‘Attention’, ‘Nothing Without You’ and ‘Die For You’ (this honestly goes, “I would die for you / I would lie for you”). Cutting his hair was no risk – the real Starboy move would have been cutting the crap.