One of the biggest enemies of musical brevity is the bottom line. Financially, an 18-track follow-up to Abel Tesfaye’s 2015 album “Beauty Behind the Madness” makes sense; money was spent on recording these tracks, and, whether or not it makes sense artistically, Republic Records wants to recoup as much of that money as possible. So, here we are with nearly 70 minutes of new material — all recorded in the first ten months of 2016 — more than half of which feel like an attempt by the label to throw whatever was recorded at the wall to see what stuck. “Starboy” spends far too much time hedging its bets, and for every inspired piece of hazy dance pop there are two songs that ring hollow and read like pure filler.
If “Beauty Behind the Madness” prowls in gloomy aphrodisia, “Starboy” commutes that bedroom intimacy for a more propulsive sound, at least in its first half. Daft Punk slathers backing vocals in shiny chrome for the song’s title track on an instrumental that — sans the fullness and breadth of Daft Punk’s collaborations with Pharrell (“Get Lucky” or “Gust of Wind,” take your pick) — meets Tesfaye’s style halfway for an extremely catchy piece of electro-R&B. Tesfaye hastens the pace on “False Alarm,” wailing on the kinetic hook amidst sliding retro synths, a breakneck drum beat, and electric guitar. It’s no less jet black than his usual tales of sex, drugs, and R&B, but it pulsates with an unprecedented stamina.
“Reminder” has all the trappings of a Future tribute: paper-thin hi-hats, moody “sing-song” rhymes, and a druggy motif at the core of the instrumental. Being that this is The Weeknd, Tesfaye’s take on the Atlanta rap crooner’s dreary musical aesthetic is unmistakably softer, and his self-assuredness demands that lines like “Got that Hannibal, Silence of the Lambo” are graded on an extremely generous curve.
For the first eight tracks, minus the stodgy and lifeless “Secrets,” Tesfaye shines inhabiting various musical skins. Unfortunately, following the lush Lana Del Rey collaboration “Stargirl Interlude” is a dearth of any proper musical inspiration. Kendrick Lamar’s verse notwithstanding, little about “Sidewalks” comes across as genuine; that Tesfaye came of age surrounded by tragedy and crime is no secret, but it becomes difficult to swallow his hideously-autotuned proclamations that “Sidewalks saved [his] life” given that his Weeknd persona is less “hardened street survivor” and more “smoldering sex genie.” And since apparently one very solid trap music commendation wasn’t enough, Future appears on two tracks, “Six Feet Under” and “All I Know,” both of which are superfluous in the face of “Reminder.” In fact, almost every song on the latter half of “Starboy” has an air of redundancy, the exceptions being the sparkly soul-inspired “Die For You” and “I Feel It Coming,” in which Daft Punk wears their post-disco adulation (à la 2013’s “Random Access Memories”) on their sleeves.
“Starboy” isn’t an outright failure. Somewhere in its confines is a terrific 10-track album, but there’s a rushed, uninspired one occupying the rest of the record that suggests how little Tesfaye and his producers could actually afford to cut. “Starboy” lacks the coherence and unity of “Beauty Behind the Madness,” and Tesfaye’s newfound sense of panache only encompasses a small amount of the album. Everything else is just bloat, devoid of personality and charm and decidedly less sexy than previous Weeknd projects.
It’s still sexy. Just less.