Abel Tesfaye, who records music as the Weeknd, can’t really dance. This has not stopped him from trying. In the video for his surprise smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” from his breakout LP, Beauty Behind the Madness, he jerks around on stage before a crowded room, bops the mic away from his body only to reel it back in, and snaps his fingers. He’s hesitantly trying on the performance style of the pop giant he idolizes: Michael Jackson. The reaction shots from the crowd give the viewer permission to laugh; the crowd Tesfaye dances for is visibly bored. When his body bursts into flames, it feels appropriate; he’s just performed glorified karaoke, and is now being punished. The video has been watched nearly 700 million times on YouTube, but it's not the moment Michael created with, say, “Billie Jean.”
Two days before the release of his latest album, Starboy, Tesfaye shared Mania, a 12-minute “visual piece” teasing several songs from Starboy. It’s supposed to feel like arthouse sleaze, with its Cat People references and a vibe that appears to have been cribbed from David Bowie’s beautiful vampire movie, The Hunger. Mania surpasses the “Can’t Feel My Face” video in that it produces one memorable image: Tesfaye delivering dad-level dance moves, his face wet with fresh blood (the result of an unexpectedly nasty, violent bathroom encounter). He dances to the lightweight and infectious “I Feel It Coming,” featuring Daft Punk, as the end credits roll over his body.
The juxtaposition of cheese and gore serves as a fitting metaphor for the album, which features some of the sweetest, corniest songs Tesfaye’s ever recorded, alongside the casually lecherous sex ‘n’ drugs bravado he could likely create in his sleep. This sort of duality serves as both a strength and a downfall; the diversity of music here surpasses any prior Weeknd project, but it makes for a wildly inconsistent ride. With production assistance from Max Martin, Cashmere Cat, Daft Punk, and Benny Blanco, and with influences from Prince and the Romantics, Starboy features his broadest sonic palette yet. And when it works, it’s genuinely irresistible.
But even as it aims to please, especially with ‘80s-indebted, dancefloor-ready numbers like “Rockin’” and “Secrets,” it also scoffs at the very notion. “I just won a new award for a kids show/Talking 'bout a face numbing off a bag a blow/I'm like goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice,” he explains on “Reminder,” an album highlight. Tesfaye seems at once engaged and detached—ready and eager to play tribute to the pop legends who preceded him, but thoroughly disillusioned with the politics that come with fame. He seems intent on having his cake and eating it too—reaping the benefits of his mainstream pop overtures with a new bid at No. 1 hit, but mocking and minimizing his success from afar.
This hints at a self-destructive level of confidence that explains the bulk of the missteps on Starboy. Tesfaye seems willing to dismiss his fans and the newfound accolades he has received since the runaway success of Beauty Behind the Madness, but unwilling to direct that criticism inwards and edit himself when necessary. At 18 songs spanning 68 minutes, the album overestimates its own appeal. Once the Kendrick Lamar and Daniel Wilson assisted “Sidewalks” concludes, the album’s second half sags considerably. At his best, Tesfaye crafts formidable hooks, but between “Six Feet Under” and “All I Know,” he goes through the motions, repeating variations on material we’ve seen him mine better on earlier projects (“Six Feet Under” feels like a retread of “6 Inch,” his contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade). Songs like “Ordinary Life” and “A Lonely Night” fail to make up for their lyrical shortcomings with memorable melodies. Leaving his comfort zone sometimes backfires too; “False Alarm” begins interestingly enough, but hits a brick wall with its abrasive gamble of a chorus.
The best moments on Starboy are unguarded and unafraid to play the part of shameless retro dance and pop pastiche. That nostalgia-based approach is working well for many this year—see the assured ’80s and '90s R&B of Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic and the Funkadelic-inspired noodling on the first singles from the upcoming Childish Gambino album. Starboy is imperfect, music from an artist at war with himself, seemingly unconcerned with reigning in his worst impulses. But even in its state of confusion, Starboy offers some of 2016’s most immersive and essential pop music.