The Weeknd’s Starboy Impresses even in the Shadow of Michael Jackson

The Weeknd idolizes Michael Jackson. In a recent interview with the LA Times, he mentioned Off The Wall as an initial inspiration to make music, and described the King of Pop’s larger than life persona. “He invented the star,” he says. The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, insists he’s not trying to be Michael, but the title of his new album, Starboy, draws inevitable comparisons to Jackson, the original starboy. And at moments on the album, as with on previous hits like “I Can’t Feel My Face,” the Toronto singer does indeed sound eerily similar to his idol.

Much of Starboy looks backwards to the 80s and the peak of Michael Jackson, disco-pop, and British indie rock. The Weeknd enlists the production help of Daft Punk on title track “Starboy” as well as “I Feel it Coming,” to the former of which the French electro duo lends their signature robotic vocalizations, while bringing their grooving disco-funk à la Random Access Memories to the latter. On “Secrets,” he lifts the chorus from the 1983 hit “Talking in Your Sleep” by The Romantics. On “Rockstar,” he croons over an early house music style beat. These nods to bygone musical eras provide some of the collection’s strongest moments; as demonstrated by fellow pop acts like Bruno Mars and Pharrell Williams, artists often strike gold by mining in the past.

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The songwriting on the album generally stays true to The Weeknd’s prior work, centering on frank acknowledgements of his own hedonism and materialism amid the shadowy excesses of fame. On “Reminder,” he points out the irony of being given a Teen’s Choice Award for a song about “a face numbing off a bag of blow,” and later is tortured by his own conscious in a chorus that seems to flicker interchangeably between “You know man” and “You’re no man.”

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Unfortunately, the spaces around the standout tracks from Starboy seem too much like filler to deem the album an epic success. The album clocks in at an hour and eight minutes and contains a whopping 18 tracks. Lackluster inclusions like “Six Feet Under” and “Nothing Without You” only detract from the album’s cohesiveness and make Starboy seem about 20 minutes too long. While The Weeknd deserves credit for his ambition and grandiose vision, he also needs to show better acuity and restraint regarding the scope of his work. Michael Jackson’s records from the EP era were under 50 minutes due to physical limitations, but even more recent pop releases demonstrate more self-awareness. Frank Ocean labored painstakingly over Blonde, perhaps to excess, but nobody could accuse the final product of being overblown or indulgent. The Weeknd has the vocal talent and the innovative sound, but maybe he’s still missing that nagging sense of perfectionism, that final cutthroat editorial process that is required by so many forms of artwork to create a masterpiece.

It’s probably unfair to compare anyone to Michael Jackson, the man who mesmerized the world with impossible dance moves and walked into the studio with every harmony and instrumental pre-arranged in his head, but after the promise of Beauty Behind the Madness, it wasn’t crazy to expect greatness from whatever came next from The Weeknd. But for now, he doesn’t quite live up to the title his album purports.

Daniel Sheehan

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