The Weeknd's 'Star Boy' first impressions: Track-by-track review of the new album

A diverse album that lurches between genres and time periods

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The Independent Culture

The Weeknd released Starboy this morning (25 November), technically his third album but essentially his sixth given how well-produced the mixtapes were.

It sees him go in new directions he started to peak at on Beauty Behind the Madness, features Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar, Lana Del Rey and Future and is streaming now on Apple Music and Spotify.

Listen along with us on the latter below, as we go track-by-track on our first spin:

1. Starboy

A statement of intent and the record-breaking first single off the LP. There are no hi-hats to be found but instead an undulating, 80s-inspired pattern of popping drums over the smash-clap of a snare. It's pop-y but with an edge to it. Driving music, a car stalking through LA, the tyres slurring over the asphalt.

2. Party Monster

The title alone is campy and so is the arpeggio slasher-horror synth. There's autotune here and you could argue it’s a shame The Weeknd’s capitulated to the trend given his vocal is so strong, but when it’s so heavily distorted and stylised it works. It’s a pretty damn catchy song, and songs are generally quite slow to get jammed in my brain. Head nodding pretty furiously and trying to catch my colleague’s attention.

3. False Alarm

Was already dreading this one coming on, which doesn’t work for me and sounds like what would happen if you put Don Henley and One Direction in a room and asked them to write a relevant R&B banger. The chorus has a kind of pseudo-punk feel to it that makes my skin crawl and I will never be on board with crowd participation-orientated “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” chants.

4. Reminder

As if to comfort you, or serve as, well, a reminder, 'Reminder' feels much more like The Weeknd that first grabbed us and is prologued by an eerie, disembodied synth line. It gives way to a moreish little beat and simple but effective vocal. The lyrics reference his surge into the mainstream and ironic Kids Choice Awards nominations for ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, a song about doing a ton of coke:

'I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking 'bout a face coming off a bag a blow'

He also says: ‘Got that Hannibal, Silence of the Lambo’ but let’s try and pretend he doesn't.

5. Rockin’

A workout jam. The bass synth line in the verse is so bouncy my ears are struggling to adjust to the tempo switch. Such a classic house cymbal too - take the vocals out and this could be on a Hed Kandi mix being played at a hotel pool party. This departure is brave in how regressive it is, I don’t know yet if it’s the sound people will want.

6. Secrets

Though I’m fond of The Weeknd's slow jams, I don’t hate the upbeat ones, and this one is way more alluring, the bass chugging away under infectious vocals and slow-stroked guitar chords. That chord progression sounds familiar actually….

Yep, it’s Tears For Fears’ ‘Pale Shelter’.

The breakdown here has a nice climb in it, almost feels out of a musical but not in a bad way.

7. True Colours

The genre references are so varied on this album ready. We were in John Carpenter territory for a while, dipped into new wave and now we’re getting something more akin to Boyz II Men. A hi-hat along reliably ticks under a syrupy chorus.

8. Stargirl Interlude

The titular Stargirl is Lana Del Rey, whom The Weeknd collaborated with on his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness. She’s a good fit as they both have an obscured but self-aware melodrama to their music.

Damn she is hitting some high notes in this, piercing through the song like Kate Bush before Abel comes in with a lower hook. Really nice little interlude and definitely could have been longer.

*Lunch interlude (not a song title, I’m just hungry)*

9. Sidewalks

Yesssss, the Kendrick track. A Madlib-esque beat involving a screeching but laid-back guitar riff over simple drums that evokes rolling through the hood trying to keep a low profile.

Not the strongest hook and I don’t think the subtle autotune adds anything, but here comes K-Dot… Incredible - he never phones in his verses, also playing around with his cadence, refusing to settle into a flow and ceaselessly switching it up. By the time he’s in machine gun mode you’ll be slapping nearby furniture.

10. Six Feet Under

A suitably menacing little track given the title. Lyrically pretty trite and Future is used sparingly given he was chosen as one of the few guests on the album, but the kind of song you’re not gonna skip if it comes on shuffle while you’re walking late at night.

11. Love To Lay

A sombre verse belies another sugary chorus that should be used for a montage of people using those water-based jetpacks. This is the sort of song that would kill on a boozy summer’s day but jars a little in December.

12. A Lonely Night

An intro of bass jabs evoking Candi Staton’s ‘You Got the Love’ or possibly scene transition music in The Fresh Prince.

We’re apparently in funk territory now. I can’t keep up.

13. Attention

Really eerie opening, a recording of a young voice distorting as if played too many times on antique equipment in a Paranormal Activity movie.

This is one of the first songs I’ll be revisiting, it has a velveteen quality and immediately fingers your spine. More understated than some of the other tracks and all the better for it.

14. Ordinary Life

David Carradine gets a name check, if the 80s cinematic touchstones weren’t clear enough, in another track with a pretty traditional verse-bridge-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure and catchy, easy to compute chorus. This record is definitely going to shift a ton of copies/clock a ton of streams.

Sounds a bit like a radio-friendly offcut from Echoes of Silence.

15. Nothing Without You

Fatigue starting to set in now (this is why I tend to listen to albums in chunks) but this is another assured bit of songwriting, the chorus getting a Diplo-esque pitch-shifted echo. The title of the song aims low lyrically, and nothing really stands out in a simple lamentation on loss of love.

16. All I Know

This is sounding more ambitious, a bit like the openers on Kiss Land - lots of bombastic bass hits and ominous synths and requiem vocals.

A meditative interlude is the calm before a hype storm from Future, who presides over the beat like it’s his kingdom.

17. Die For You

This has groove to it and I’m feeling more rapt by the album now Abel’s breaking it down…but just as it’s ending.

It has a tragic ecstasy to it befitting an end of the world party that happens to fall on New Years’ Eve.

18. I Feel It Coming

Remember the first time you heard ‘King Kunta’ and it was all happy funk, only for the guitar line to wound it and add a darkness? There’s similar stuff at play here, the Daft Punk-featuring track initially falling in with Michael Jackson and Toto on a Venn diagram but, crucially, being thrown off kilter by a melancholy keyboard line low in the mix in the chorus. Could definitely become an iconic track.

That was a lot to take on board in one hit. I know there’s a couple of tracks I already want to wheel back after a breather, but I also know that I never want to hear ‘False Alarm’ ever again and that it should probably be jettisoned into space for the public’s safety.

I’ve accepted the fact that The Weeknd won’t be making more music like House of Balloons, and I really don’t blame him given he served up three mixtape’s worth, but this vulture-like clawing at different genres sometimes feels haphazard and like pastiche rather than trendsetting. Abel Tesfaye is undoubtedly a gifted vocalist and songwriter, but his thirst for MJ, sound-of-a-generation mainstream status is, I fear, leading him down the wrong paths.

Update: Fifth impressions - I'm warming to it now. Had 'Secrets' on repeat and the bridge in 'Rockin' is too perfect.