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Review: The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ Treads Murky Water in Innovative R&B Era

"It just seems like niggas trying to sound like my old shit," sings the Weeknd on "Reminder." Ironically, years after remaking contemporary R&B in his druggy, sex-obsessed vision on his iconic debut EP House of Balloons, the Toronto singer has settled into a familiar routine. We know that his songs will explore love as either a tortured form of codependency or transactional pornography; that he will boast of his forays into a one-percent world of luxury vehicles, white lines and sylph-like women; and that the beats will possess a synthesized sheen that gleams like coated stock paper in Vogue magazine.

The Weeknd has managed to offer some kind of ingenuity in spite of his well-worn shticks in the past. Kiss Land may have sounded like Trilogy redux, but at least it offered a thrilling reprise of Eighties underground darkwave as well as his mordantly inspired meditations on the first rush of international fame. Beauty Behind the Madness was a stunning leap forward into the pop stratosphere, and its standout moments more than outweighed its weaker tracks. However, Starboy, which follows a mixed critical reception to teaser tracks "Starboy" and "Party Monster," just sounds like clichés wrapped in prettier packaging. Yes, the Weeknd cut his dreads in favor of a fetching ink-blot mohawk; he's working with Daft Punk, who produced the title track and "I Feel It Coming"; and he's got a nickname that he has said pays homage to the late David Bowie. (He hasn't acknowledged claims that Nigerian afrobeats vocalist Wizkid used the name "Starboy" first.)

Two days before Starboy's release, the Weeknd dropped a short film titled Mania. It found him entering a nightclub shaded in red and blue hues, where he seeks out and gyrates with the French model Anais Mali, and then he's nearly knifed by a jealous suitor – before Mali transforms into a panther and decapitates the assailant. The latter scene is a clear nod to Nicolas Wilding Refn's recent art-house shocker The Neon Demon and its ornate vision of fashion models that transform into bloodthirsty animals. But while Refn continues to bravely exhaust his post-Drive goodwill with thrillingly polarizing work, Starboy offers evidence that the Weeknd is afraid to abandon the post-millennial lounge lizard archetype that has brought him so much renown.

Incidentally, the aforementioned "Reminder" is one of Starboy's better tracks. "I just won a new award from a kids show/Talking 'bout a face numbing from a bag of blow," he says in reference to his world conquering hit "I Can't Feel My Face." "I'm like, goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice." On "Sidewalks," which features a cameo from Kendrick Lamar, he talks more shit in that inimitable singing/rapping mode that so many lesser "wavy" R&B vocalists have copied. "Too many people think they made me/Well, if they really made me then replace me."

Yet the Weeknd should take a look at his own state of affairs. This year has brought amazing soul music, whether it's the galvanizing call-to-arms of the Knowles sisters' political R&B, the thrift-shop funk of Anderson Paak or the deeply emotional ambient states of Frank Ocean. The Weeknd should be among those trailblazers pushing forward. Instead, he stuffs Starboy with dreary alt-R&B boilerplates and arch New Wave near misses. Among the latter is "Secrets," a sugary Eighties cataclysm with a stabbing synth beat and a melodic reprise of Tears for Fears' "Pale Shelter," and which falters on a perfunctory hook lifted from the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep." "Rockin'" has an infectious garage-house rhythm courtesy of producers Max Martin and Ali Payami, but all the Weeknd can do is respond with a clunky chorus. Inexplicably, Lana Del Rey appears as "Stargirl." And since the Weeknd and Future turned "Low Life" into a perfunctory hit earlier this spring, why not aim for more SEO-leveraged magic with "Six Feet Under" and "All I Know"?

Lyrically, he mostly offers banalities. "People always talk about the ones that got away/I just seem to get the ones that always want to stay," he sings unconvincingly on "Rockin'." Even worse is when he sings, "She ain't got time for lovin'/Louis Vuitton her husband" on "Six Feet Under." Then there's the monochromatic synth-pop of "Love to Lay" and its chorus, "She loves to lay/I learned the hard way."

Despite an overlong hour-plus runtime and surplus of filler, Starboy does have highlights. "A Lonely Night" is a nice B-side-quality slice of electro-funk. "Attention" is a decent EDM ballad that could have been made by Major Lazer or Jason DeRulo. Two of the best tracks arrive at album's end. "Die for You" is a euphoric slow jam where he finally summons the poetic sincerity he mined so easily in the past. "It's hard for me to communicate the thoughts that I hold/But tonight I'm gonna let you know/Let me tell the truth," he sings. The closer, "I Feel It Coming," is a gem of Ibiza disco love. It's meant as a contrast to Daft Punk's dark techno work on "Starboy," but "I Feel It Coming" is surprisingly sunny and fresh, and encourages the Weeknd to briefly abandon his increasingly stale image as an unrepentant night creature.

Of course, "Starboy" peaked at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, so maybe it pays to rest on his laurels. But for longtime fans that believe the Weeknd is one of the major R&B artists of the decade, Starboy will ultimately seem like a disappointment.

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