The extent of the 2015 Weeknd commercial rebound, symbolized by platinum certifications for Beauty Behind the Madness and all four of its singles, didn't merely embolden Abel Tesfaye. On this follow-up's fourth track, a blithe midtempo cut where Tesfaye takes a swipe at pretenders while boasting about drinking codeine out of one of his trophies, the level of success is a source of amusement. He notes the absurdity in taking a "kids' show" award for "Can't Feel My Face," in which he was "talkin' 'bout a face numbin' off a bag of blow." The track actually lost to Adele's "Hello," but it clearly, somewhat comically, reached an unintended demographic. It comes as no surprise that Tesfaye, on his third proper album, doesn't attempt to optimize the reach of his biggest hit by consciously targeting youngsters. He sings of being a "Starboy" with access to a fleet of sports cars, but he's a "motherfuckin' starboy," one who is 26 years old and proud to observe his woman snort cocaine off his fancy table. While Starboy often reflects an increased opulence in the personal and professional aspects of Tesfaye's life -- from more upscale pronouns to expensive collaborations with the likes of Daft Punk (two) and "Can't Feel My Face" producers Max Martin and Ali Payami (four) -- the dark moments of vulnerability are pitch black. Lines like "I switch up my cup, I kill any pain" could have come from Tesfaye's mixtape debut, yet there are new levels of torment. In "Ordinary Life," he considers driving off a Mulholland Drive cliff, James Dean style, wishing he could swap everything for angel status. It's followed with "Nothing Without You," a ballad of toxic dysfunction. He asks his lover if she'd feel guilty for not answering his call if he happened to die that night. It's not all dread and depravity. There's some sense of joy in a one-night stand, and an echo of "Say Say Say" Michael Jackson, on the Luomo-ish house track "Rockin'." Contrition is shown in the slick retro-modern disco-funk of "A Lonely Night." Ironically enough, in the aching "True Colors," Tesfaye sounds a little insecure about a lover's past. The album's lighter, comparatively sweeter parts -- the Tears for Fears-sampling/Romantics-referencing "Secrets" and the breezy and only slightly devilish "I Feel It Coming" among them -- are all welcome highlights. At 18 tracks, the album is a "contracted edition" playlist toolkit. The songwriting credits list just under 40 composers, and the productions -- the majority of which involve Doc McKinney and/or Cirkut, low-lighted by maneater dance-punk dud "False Alarm" -- are roughly as variable in style as they are in quality. When pared down to its ten best songs, Starboy sounds like Tesfaye's most accomplished work.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman