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Linnabary: ‘Starboy’ paints The Weeknd as just another ball of gas

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Back when his debut “House of Balloons” released, The Weeknd was an enigma.

Little was known about Abel Tesfaye or his team of producers. Shrouded in mystery, his songs about endless lines of cocaine, casual sex and his apathy to such a hedonistic lifestyle were fascinatingly leftfield.

Fast forwarding five years, past a triple-platinum album, a Grammy for a “50 Shades of Grey” soundtrack cut, and a hairdo change, it’s hard to continue to call Tesfaye a mystery (or fascinating).

His shtick can be boiled down to songs about women, sex, and drugs (and, to break the monotony, money and cars – nothing short of groundbreaking material) in an increasingly sanitized capacity.

“Starboy” continues this trend, albeit in a slightly revamped package. Many of the beats Tesfaye croons over are 80s homages, sounding like a laboratory-created combination of new wave and Michael Jackson cuts, with sparkling, sugary synths, danceability and an inviting warmth to the sound.

The beats are great, if unoriginal. Unfortunately, Tesfaye is largely just the latter on “Starboy.”

It would be fitting for Tesfaye to take a more sensitive, less cold (on previous releases, Tesfaye generally came across like a misogynistic Tin Man) approach over such an accessible musical backdrop. But by and large, Tesfaye seems unsure how to pull off such an approach, instead resorting to middling, watered-down lyrics and melodies.

Things start out strong enough with the title track, which finds Tesfaye reflecting on his rise to superstar status. “Look what you’ve done,” Tesfaye demands on the chorus, seemingly reflecting on the fact that his fans have given him household name status from songs about blow and casual sex. It’s a powerful realization, though it’s unclear if this was the intended message.

I just a won a new award for a kids show, talking about a face numbing off a bag of blow.”

— The Weeknd

The album follows with two more singles, “Party Monster” (Tesfaye is on auto-pilot on the track) and “False Alarm.” “False Alarm” is the most musically experimental cut on the album, a mesh of new wave and EDM with an up-tempo, bass-dropping chorus –not a great combination for the crooner. It’s The Weeknd like you’ve never heard before, and likely will never again; it’s assuredly a misfire.

Thankfully, after going one-for-three on the lead-in trio of singles, “Reminder” picks things up over a haunting, relaxed beat that’s punctuated with piano (the track strays from the 80s-vibe given off by most of the album). Tesfaye uses the track as a chance for some of his most pointed lyrics: “I just won a new award for a kids show, talkin ‘bout a face numbing off a bag of blow.” There’s also this gem of a line: “Got a sweet Asian chick, she go low mane.”

“Rockin” starts off promising, with Tesfaye getting into his best Michael Jackson groove on the verses, but things take a turn for the worse on the chorus. The lyrics and melody are phoned-in (“I just want your body next to me, ‘cause it brings me so much ecstasy/We can just be rockin’”). In the past, Tesfaye was at his best when pushing his persona’s envelope (which happens fleetingly on “Starboy”). On “Rockin,” he sounds insipid; he continues this blandness into “Secrets.”

It’s a recurring problem on the album: The Weeknd is an R&B singer. Some lyrical shortcomings can be overlooked if the melodies carry most of the weight. The problem on “Starboy” is, for the most part, they don’t. Tesfaye seems content with moaning out the same familiar melodies in a less-than-inspired tone. The shimmering and lively beats mask this to an extent, yes, but not enough to forgive Tesfaye’s laziness.

It seems with each of his releases, Tesfaye is content with doing less and less, letting his ever-increasing musical budget do the talking for him.

There are bright spots, including the previously mentioned title track and “Reminder.” “True Colors” remains lyrically mild, but the track benefits from a playful, infectious chorus that perfectly complements its shimmering beat, and “Attention,” while nothing new, is a fun ride from start to finish.

I ran out of tears when I was 18.”

— The Weeknd

Late album and surprise standout cut “Die for You” is pure power ballad – you can hear the banality of the track from its opening bouncing bass synth. Yet the song overcomes its inherent corniness through sheer force.

And album closer “I Feel It Coming (feat. Daft Punk)” really delivers on the album’s 80s promise. Over a danceable, bubbly beat, Tesfaye sounds comfy and, dare I say it, considerate – the right combo for the beat, and the right combo for most of the album’s musical backdrop. Sadly, the feeling is dispersed inconsistently throughout such a musically warm album.

“Starboy” finds The Weeknd aiming for Michael Jackson-esque pop appeal – the problem is he doesn’t fit the bill. As a singer, he’s not as dynamic and emotive – let’s not even got started on the dancing and showmanship. Though the LP is not without its highlights (some even fulfill his 80s ambitions), one can’t help but think Tesfaye is aiming to be the kind of star he wasn’t meant to be. “Starboy” does little more than paint Tesfaye as just another love-struck copy-and-pasted pop star.  We loved him when he was off the rails, giving us the details of a (perhaps the understatement of the decade) self-indulgent lifestyle; when you’re supposed to be a “Starboy,” shouldn’t you be aimed at the stars, not firmly planted on Earth?

Final grade: C-

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