Starboy is just too damn long.
“Too long” is not exactly the most common criticism—how many times has the Twitterverse lamented that the pop cultural moment of the hour is just “not long enough”, that we need more of whatever’s caught our attention that day? I remember a specific instance where I used that expression myself, in another review: “A little over five minutes isn’t enough of this,” I said about a song at one point. I remember feeling a bit exultant after the fact; it just felt so good to write it out.
But Starboy—this album is too long. And that’s the problem.
To an extent, I get it. It’s not just The Weeknd on this album; it’s also The Weeknd playing the role of the titular Starboy, and an 18 record-long tracklist feels like Abel Tesfaye trying to make room for both. Abel as The Weeknd as Starboy is an ambitious, multi-layered gamble, with a perceivable endgame goal of eventually merging these characters into a single, ultimate pop-and-R&B-fusion superstar. But instead of forging a realized artist, Starboy acts more like a supernova—a bright explosion, capable of simultaneously blowing up the Billboard Top 40 and your social media feeds within seconds, but leaving very little substance behind.
On Starboy, The Weeknd doesn’t really do an especially good job at consolidating these different personas, making this album feel like a bit of an identity crisis. That’s why its length is such a problem: giving himself the time and space of 18 individual songs makes that lack of cohesion all the more obvious.
Somewhere following Lana Del Rey’s stint as Abel’s complimentary Stargirl in the ethereal “Stargirl Interlude”, Starboy begins to fall apart. Introducing Lana into the mix plays out like a stark reminder of what The Weeknd once was—broody, moody, melancholy beyond belief—which feels very much at odds with the poppy, MJ-inspired Daft Punk and Max Martin collaborations that came earlier in the tracklist. Songs become distinguishable as either pre- or post-Beauty Behind The Madness, or as clumsy attempts to consolidate his signature debauchery with a considerably more lighthearted musical approach. Understandably, that contrast is very difficult to reconcile, and blood-stained music videos aside, Abel did give us a fun time: Starboy is stuffed with chart-toppers and musical homages, and bangers like “False Alarm” (dance-punk in its most recent, and most accessible, incarnation) and “Secrets” (which doesn’t even try to hide its obvious reverence for everything 80s, much to its benefit) are bound to come up at house parties over the next six months, easy. Because the thing is, overall, Starboy is an enjoyable album. But since it’s so clearly a transitory work, so clearly stuck between two versions of the same artist, it ultimately isn’t a great one.
The attempt to bridge Abel’s Weeknd and Abel’s Starboy results in a few excellent songs linked together by formulaic, forgettable echoes of past hits. The instinct to skip ahead is especially prevalent in that second, post-“Stargirl” half, as Abel struggles to find footing between The Weeknd of the past—all the way back to the Trilogy days, even; back to when he was best known as a delicate falsetto who preached drugs, booze and meaningless sex through a cloudy haze of lingering, seductive synth—and The Weeknd he’s apparently trying to become—the guy whose irreverence is accessible enough for a radio edit, the guy who sells out stadiums while reminding us, as he sings about sins and vices over a danceable Diplo beat, that he was never this guy to begin with.
This apparent paradox of a career trajectory is a relatively transparent move, but it’s also led Tesfaye to absurd levels of success. Just take a quick listen to “Reminder”, and he’ll tell you all about it himself: I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow / I’m like goddamn bitch I am not a Teen Choice.
Hey, it’s a look. And it can be a great one, especially when you think about the effectiveness of a pop artist successfully tapping into nostalgia, irony, and identity, and even more so in 2016. But he’s not quite there yet.
Starboy isn’t particularly awful or audibly offensive at any point; the album was too masterfully produced to ever be anything less than generally pleasurable listening. But when that identity crisis kicks in mid-song and Abel can’t seem to decide what version of himself he is at that moment, it can definitely feel mediocre—and when Starboy becomes complacent with its mediocrity, it takes drudging through three, four, five generic tracks to get to the next good thing the album has to offer. If you keep listening all the way through, what you get between a few pop gems is a dull blur of tepidly autotuned, 80s-flavored production bookending sluggish songwriting cameos and shoehorned guest verses from Kendrick Lamar and Future (and let’s face it, knowing that there’s a better Future x The Weeknd track out there only hurts the uninspired “All I Know”).
At that point, is this album even worth listening to all the way through more than a few cursory times? Because The Weeknd can do—and has done, and has the capacity for—so much more.
What will ultimately keep Starboy in this year’s pop music conversation are the few standouts of the album, records that hint at a striking potential in The Weeknd’s future. “Attention” is The Weeknd and Cashmere Cat’s recreation of a softer, autotuned Trilogy single; with Max Martin’s intelligent, calculated approach to electronic fist-pumping, “Rockin'” could be a lost track from Disclosure’s Settle; in “I Feel It Coming”, Abel teams up with Daft Punk for what feels like a robotic, down-tempo version of “Can’t Feel My Face” that shocks in its sweetness (The Weeknd is scared of love! But he wants to fall in love!).
While these songs almost feel like cuts from different albums, they’re still individual triumphs of pop music. In Starboy‘s most effective turns, The Weeknd proves that he can excel in pretty much any iteration of the genre that he wants. What’s needed now is the creative cohesion to combine these different versions of the artist into one.
The Weeknd actually does manage to accomplish this at one point; fittingly, it’s in the title track, the most infectious, brilliantly crafted record on this album. “Starboy” exemplifies the irresistible paradox of The Weeknd in 2016: he’s darkness with a polished, chrome-finished smile, light obscured by the weight and gravity of stardom. In less than four minutes, Abel chops off his hair, he’s covered in blood, and with a Daft Punk beat on hand, he dares us—no, actually, it’s more desperate than that; he implores us to dance along to his debauchery. Look what you’ve done, he sings at us, having realized that all he can really do with his fame is fall into it. In this single moment amidst an overcrowded tracklist, he’s finally all in: I’m a motherfucking Starboy.
This is The Weeknd that Abel spends 18 songs trying to find. In song and in reality, this is The Weeknd as Starboy, both characters finally as one, and it’s a part of the album that doesn’t feel like overkill, or like it’s going on for too long. On the contrary—this is the artist we’ve been waiting to hear.
Image from The Weeknd.