Any first encounter with The Weeknd and his ravishing, raw falsetto takes on the air of a surreptitious affair. This is certainly true if you listened from his delirious first mixtape House of Balloons, relating—or more likely, fantasizing about relating—with “bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain,” those guitar strings sounding more like plucks on out-of-tune heartbeats. Or if the inescapable “The Hills,” from 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, punctured your pop radio speakers, its menacing warble both alluring and alarming.
Either way, The Weeknd’s music felt like a secret, and not one you were necessarily supposed to know. Whereas the most beloved art incites wonder into audiences, questioning, “How Is This Possible?” The Weeknd’s sound on first listen instills dread, the dilemma instead, “Should This Be Possible?”
By now it’s obvious just how appealing we all find consuming something we possibly shouldn’t. In that way they always tend to fail, parental warnings and respectability politics only invited you further into The Weeknd’s sordid fantasies. You always wanted more: more sex, more self-loathing, more of his sleazy songs.
This was a design. Like all controlling lovers, The Weeknd withheld. Even within the engineering of his records, like “The Hills,” his voice layers from high up, like he’s on top of the mountain that is his music. He’s perpetually distant, and with that trembling vibrato, it makes you reach out because a) we want what we can’t have or b) he sounds damaged, like if he could only find the right person, he’d be healed.
Now this is where some would call total and utter bullshit. The Weeknd’s a phony, they’d say. A put-on character who only pretends like this sadomasochistic pussy hound. Someone who never even hints within the contradictions of his music—like, bro, if you want love so bad, maybe stop playing such a douchebag. If he leaned into this, maybe his act would be forgivable, and possibly fun.
A fair conceit. His 2013 album Kiss Land revealed a singer stuck in repeat. It prompted a naked and necessary reinvention through Beauty Behind The Madness, an uber-engineered, marketable stylized pop behemoth. It created this persona as The Weeknd as a millennial Michael Jackson, mostly because that’s exactly what he and his team wanted you to believe. If you’ve heard “Can’t Feel My Face” you know what I mean. But another short example: In an NYTimes profile around the time, The Weeknd described “In The Night” as a pop compromise he was willing to make for global stardom. It’s a complete “Billie Jean” rip-off. Ron Perry, president of Songs Music Publishing, ecstatic about its smash record possibilities, exclaimed in the same profile, “It’s ‘Billie Jean!’ It’s Billie [expletive] Jean!” He meant this positively.
On some level, I feel contradictory making that criticism. The Weeknd’s new album Starboy isn’t only phenomenal, space opera splendor. It’s also a glorious reboot of all things 80s pop, disco, and electrowave. But instead of acting like some previous star, he funnels all those influences through a persona familiar yet refreshing.
Those who’ve never understood The Weeknd’s character miscalculated its appeal: Never is it about The Weeknd himself, but how he serves as cypher for you to assume a sensually desired and—yes—sexy role. He pinpoints the void, you fill it. All it requires is a 45-second investigation into dude’s Instagram to unmask his cornball temperaments. But who cares? We’re all somewhat cornballs underneath. Music’s supposed to make your forget as much as remember.
As he proves on Starboy, floating over beats as raw and pulsating as ever while also caressing sweet, soothing melodies, The Weeknd is one of three current pop singers who can sing any chorus and it vibrate perfectly. (Rihanna and Frank Ocean are the other two. I’d listen to any of them croon the damn tax code.) But he also dips into electronica hip-hop with titular track “Starboy,” boasting “I come alive in the fall time,” a more succulent bar than 90 percent of rap released this year.
Starboy marks an evolution, with records like R&B bop “True Colors” and the bare wailing on “Die For You.” He’s even anticipating a true lover on the Daft-Punk-assisted funk jam “I Feel It Coming,” an album standout. That he even desires genuine emotions strikes as almost revelatory. Often The Weeknd’s perceived vulnerability curved a manipulative nature. On Starboy, he finds loves, even if it remains distant and unattainable to him, causing him to slip into his old, House of Balloons ways.
Then again, as exciting as the expansion of The Weeknd’s sound is, fans still crave his darker inclinations. I do. That flippantly callous attitude on “Sidewalks,” crackling through auto-tune, “I ran out of tears when I was 18,” invigorates. As do accusatory taunts like “Six Feet Under” and “Attention.” Somehow, outside Rihanna’s ANTI, The Weeknd’s produced the most versatile pop album this year, suited for background party noise, club hits, and booming car records. He’s (finally) given it all to you.
The Weeknd doesn’t so much create records about love, but records for those who want to be in love. Either they aren’t or can’t, identifying some deficiency internally. That attitude bubbles beneath much of The Weeknd’s work. At times, that falls flat, too forced. It doesn’t (mostly) in Starboy. He seems more at ease, more comfortable within his presentation as pop’s dark prince. That he needed the Starboy character to locate that self isn’t a shortcoming. To assume the characters we so desperately wish to be, look at how much we use The Weeknd.
The most essential daily news, entertainment, pop culture, and culture coverage. Want more? Check out “A Look Inside J.K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ ” “8 Current-Day Life Lessons From ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ ” and “Here’s Why I Don’t Think The Gilmore Girls Actually Drank Coffee On The Show”