They say fame changes people but it never seems to alter the hedonistic and nihilistic. It instead enables those immersed in it, propelling the excess, pardoning the disorderly, excusing the absurd and granting more access to the things that could destroy them in the end. Dollar signs don't alter the people with them as much as they do those right outside the glossy bubble, who normalize their demented sins in hopes of securing a squatted seat next to the spotlight, like they're shining shoes. Money and fame may have taken a dependent singer like Abel Tesfaye from his gritty anarchic world of dungeon R&B to sold-out arenas and award-show stages as The Weeknd but he's always been notably honest about his self-loathing hazy sex and drug-fueled tendencies. It's us that have endorsed them and molded him into Starboy. Look what we've done.
"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," Abel sings on his arrival at mainstream success, off the absurdity of his escapist admissions this past year. "Every time you try to forget who I am, I'll be right there to remind you again." And he has. Just over a year after releasing his Grammy-award winning sophomore studio album Beauty Behind the Madness, which cemented Tesfaye as the most openly flawed male pop star gunning for his mainstream chart-topping takeover, The Weeknd has unveiled a brand-new pop epic more bright and opulent than he's ever been. Sonorous and melancholic vocals, which were once attributed to the pop provocateur have been replaced with silky, slick melodies, while dark, chilling bass-battered beats have been overridden by polished and glittery synth-seduced production from the likes of pioneering French duo Daft Punk, classic collaborator Doc McKinney, hit phenom Max Martin, while executive produced by the Canadian R&B radical himself.
But the dichotomy between Starboy's soulful futuristic pop and the explicit contents that fill his emotionally stunted sonic universe is what landed him here. Success hasn't diluted his substance abuse, rampant misogyny or affinity for hollow altercations but given him the star power to continue manufacturing stadium-built alternative pop ballads through an authentic and unapologetic character's rise to the top. Where Beauty Behind the Madness took him out of House of Balloons' cheap hotels with after-hour regulars to penthouse suites filled with models, Starboy's 18-track sparkling blockbuster has welcomed him into a lavish world where excessive and extravagant lifestyles are the norm. Not much has changed but the scenery and sonic spectacle. Except that this time, the Party Monster has met his equal: Stargirl.
Within the sexually explicit, manic-pop escapades detailed in Abel's latest project, his falsetto-led autobiographical antagonist comes across his tequila-chugging, line-bumping, late-night grinding match – a girl who understands him ('Party Monster'), brings out the best in him ('Nothing Without You'), yet in the end, outdoes him by using Tesfaye's most notable grimy traits against him ('Love To Lay', 'All I Know'). And just like that, his cycle of mistrust and dysfunction continues. At least he's trying.
While Starboy may not be a giant creative risk stretching away and beyond what we've come to expect from The Weeknd (like many of his A list peers such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West have done with their albums earlier this year), it's a continuation of Abel's edgy salacious narrative and a complete assassination of pop's thematic normalcy. Kids singing along to coke ballads. We've awarded Abel for that luxurious and self-sabotaging story, enjoying our second-hand view. So The Weeknd has continued to put on a show.