The Weeknd has always been somewhat of a quirky presence in the R&B world. On one hand, there was electrifying music, rife with passion and sexuality, veiled in melancholic beats and soft vocals. On the other was the haircut, subject to a lot of speculation and praise (“he was an individual amongst many!). By no means was he revolutionary in his musical avenues: his beats were reminiscent of Prince, the high falsetto an inheritance by way of Michael Jackson. But still, there was no denying the raw power of his music, his uncanny ability to guise adult themes in perfect harmonies and catchy choruses. The uplifting, symphonic, funky backtracks.
He’s been doing this since 2011, and has released instantly recognizable hits like “Often,” “Earned It” and more recently “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills.” For most people, that would be the extent of knowledge about this Canadian singer-songwriter. Only cursory listeners would lead you to believe that The Weeknd’s music is centered around casual sex and debauchery. The emotion behind his music belies something entirely. Full of anxious emotion, it’s as though he is trying to prove that he, too, can be capable of sex and drugs and more. That he, too, can fit into the mold of Hollywood expectations set for him. The bass and electronic undertones of his tracks create a dire picture that needs a savior, inevitably the open and vulnerable The Weeknd ready for a night of… you know… whatever. He has a tendency to paint himself as the grandiose and exaggerated master of anything, ready to inject some fun into this night, and some of his lyrics even tended to border on vulgarity, reminiscent of hyperbolic brags guys are prone to making about their sexual endeavors to other guys. “Standard locker room talk,” as we would call it. So that was it. The image of The Weeknd was steadfast in the eyes of many: sex songs and strange locks.
Imagine the shock of the music industry when a new album cover appeared without The Weeknd’s signature crazy hair. His dreadlocks made him who he was and he’s kept them fairly consistently through the last 4 years. It was widely accepted that The Weeknd’s flaunting of his black roots and heritage in a way that bordered on slight alarm was his own personal stamp of style. Beyonce has her bodysuits and booty, Taylor Swift her sickeningly sweet charm and her lipstick, and The Weeknd had his hair. It was the way of the world, dammit!
When “Starboy,” his first single of his new album of the same name, dropped, I wasn’t that much bothered by The Weeknd tbh. It was Daft Punk (!!!) that made me rush to find some good Wi-Fi so I could listen to the new track. And I got to tell you, it’s banging. Daft Punk haven’t really been around much since their 2012 release Random Access Memories, their last popular song being “Get Lucky” ft. Pharrell. Daft Punk was an unusual choice for The Weeknd to partner with, whose earlier collaborations included the likes of Ariana Grande and Drake, both of possessing similar slow-pop qualities. Daft Punk, on the other hand, gave us electronic infused songs like “One More Time” and “Technologic” which were so hopped up on adrenaline and beat. Granted, “Can’t Feel My Face” was a sing along fad with fast enough beats to crave our pop and dance needs, but Daft Punk seemed a bit extreme in direction for The Weeknd particularly.
I take it all back.
On “Starboy,” Daft Punk have a very controlled presence with an Afro-Funk inspired drum beat undercutting the entire track, their iconic clapping sound interspersed in the chorus for that extra pump in the beat. The only thing more electronic in this song is The Weeknd’s autotune, a constant companion in almost all his music. In fact, Daft Punk provide The Weeknd with a burst of freshness and bob-your-head sway-your-hips kind of rhythm that was missing in his previous works. The closest I can think of is “In The Night”, a Billie Jean-esque track that will keep you intrigued. The Weeknd’s previous works (see: “Often“ and “Wicked Games“) had a more sensual feel to them, the kind that earns a place on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack alongside slowed down and sexed up versions of songs like “Crazy In Love.” “Starboy” manages to perfectly sync The Weeknd’s falsetto mellow rant on the industry with an insanely catchy Daft Punk beat that in my opinion injects a fresh vein of chill downtronic house into an already established and successful alternative R&B tune. It’s fresh all right, but the real question is, how much did The Weeknd really have to do with it?
As for the video, it’s set in the same underexposed neon cinematography style of the album photos. We open with a shot of the new Weeknd literally murdering his old self (a little on the nose for my taste, the haircut was already proof enough) and settling in his newly acquired house. He picks up a giant glowing red cross and proceeds to smash everything of value in the apartment–trophies, chandeliers, you name it. He then gets into a beautiful sports car with a, I wanna say, panther? And he drives away. I’m sure there are thousands of people in the YouTube comments heralding the coming of the next Antichrist or whatever with the red cross imagery, but I think the most interesting thing is that The Weeknd feels like he wants a clean slate. I’m not entirely sure what that holds precisely, considering his musical style hasn’t exactly changed, but in all honesty, I am just glad the cameo by Daft Punk still had them wearing their badass helmets because if they’d taken that off, I don’t think I would have survived, what with the missing hair too…
If his lyrics and video are any indication, he smashes up his old records and tells us he’s switching up his style for any lane. He pays tribute to sports cars with those name drops of a Blue Mulsanne and an SV Roadster. When he gets into that McLaren in the end with the panther, he’s literally speeding off for something better with a newfound fierceness. If you look very, very closely, you can probably see my eyes rolling off my head. Subtlety is truly a lost art form.
“Starboy” sounds and feels new and clean, but it can be easily argued that the reason for that is Daft Punk’s unassuming presence on the track, and not really The Weeknd’s music. Sure, he’s changed up his look and his lyrics a bit, but it’s really hard to say at this point that this is an entirely new The Weeknd we’re seeing without listening to more. I’m really looking forward to the rest of his album and I want to see if there are any tracks sung in the “old” Weeknd persona and/or whether this switch-up only occurs midway. This collaboration raises expectations on delivering more catchy tunes, and I think The Weeknd has finally found his “true” voice, even if it needs some help being delivered at this stage. (Not that there was anything wrong with the old one.)
Starboy is out 11/25 via Universal Republic Records.
P.S. Least favorite lyric: “Star Trek room in that Wraith of Khan” DUDE. It’s Wrath. Wrath of Khan. Like, his anger, not his damn ghost. It’s only one of the most popular Star Trek movies ever. You could have done a little bit of research at least. Sigh.