The Weeknd. One of the breakout stars of this pop cycle. Famed for his string of pop hits, his passion for shapeless black urbanwear, and for having his hair cut like Raven from Metal Gear Solid. 2015 was absolutely his year, and just recently he announced ‘Starboy’, the new album due out this month. Quite suddenly, the self-titled first single dropped last month. With Daft Punk taking some of the songwriting and production credits, things were looking good. Daft Punk of course make everything better. I was looking forward to hearing what R&B’s man of mystery had been working on.
‘Starboy’ is a strange choice for lead single. From the off I’ll say I like this one quite a bit. The Daft Punk production lends that signature analogue sound. Their vocoder effects, while simple, are fun and give the song some levity. The Weeknd still seems to enjoy writing songs about night time, being up late, and basically doing all the things his Mam told him not to do. However there is a lightness of touch. And I like that. This isn’t really catchy at all, which is why I think it’s a strange choice for lead. It succeeds as a mood piece. There is a restless energy. It’s a song in minor keys and yet it holds the same appeal as ‘What Do You Mean?’ last year. It’s cathartic, if not really pulse-pounding.
Overall it’s musically strong too. The persistent drum-machine you hear from the intro sounds just like ‘Kangaroo Court‘ by Capital Cities (and even more like ‘Pathetic‘ by Erik Hassle) but here it has a brittle, organic feel to it. Again this is classic Daft Punk, who excel at bringing a human touch to robotic beats and production. There isn’t any big chorus or great solo or key change or anything that really stands out, but that again is by design. This is a smooth and seamless thing. It’s polished and chromatic, like the iPhone or some sleek piece of tech that you aren’t supposed to unpack.
Yet upon revisit it becomes clear this is a rumination on the Weeknd’s own huge success. The braggadocios first verse is off-putting. It’s list of all the material possessions Weeknd owns (including the women in his life) and how much better they are than yours. But it’s intentionally off-putting. It does something I love in thinking man’s pop, a trait shared by 1975’s ‘Love Me’, by inviting a straightforward interpretation, almost willing the audience to read things at face value. When contrasted with the mournful piano and disaffected lilt in the Weeknd’s vocals it becomes clear that these things have not brought him happiness.
“Look what you’ve done” is a private observation. It’s his own realisation that coming to possess all you desire does not actually fulfil you. That you are never truly, thoroughly satisfied, even if you are the ‘Starboy’; someone who has enjoyed huge success and is made for life. It’s more interesting stuff when you see it this way, and while the observation that stardom comes at a cost isn’t exactly a revelation, it hints at a new depth to Weeknd’s songwriting. The last couplet of the last verse suggests that in this new life Weeknd isn’t interested in emotional fulfilment or happiness, just cars, and indeed he references cars constantly throughout the song. You could see this as evidence of superficiality but I choose to think Weeknd is being more clever than that, and actually making fun of the trope in rap and R&B to obsess over sports cars and people flash enough to drive them.
This one’s a grower, and I like it more the more I hear it. It’s refreshing to hear Weeknd writing a song with a bit of humility, a bit of world-weariness, and his voice is silky without being overwrought. He’s toned down a little on the ‘I’m complex and broken’ bullshit, and indeed Weeknd has an awful lot to say here, on his life in those same Hollywood Hills that so obsessed him on Beauty Behind the Madness. It’s a successful comeback, and now we can look forward to whatever this full length is going to sound like.