'Starboy' Unravels The Weeknd's Mystery and Brings Abel Tesfaye into Focus
'Starboy' is The Weeknd's musical metamorphosis. The only question is what took so long?
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Abel Tesfaye is anxious. In an Apple Music sit-down with Zane Lowe, the first on-camera interview for the intensely private singer, The Weeknd spoke about his progression as an artist. "I used to go on stage drunk," he said, remembering the disappointment he felt after watching a recording that forced him to re-evaluate his embrace of stardom. It was his first major stage; Coachella, 2012. "I'm anxious right now," he confesses with a laugh, one of the few uninhibited moments in the interview. For fans of The Weeknd, the quietness of his demeanor, the pauses that followed each question was not unexpected. The precociousness of his carefully tailored celebrity is trademark for Tesfaye. From the very beginning, much of his allure was contingent on his mystique. After releasing House of Balloons, a mixtape about tripping off drugs, manipulative love, and an alarming head-to-head with mortality, he chose to forgo immediate fame for prolonged anonymity. By the time that Thursday and Echoes of Silence were released—completing the bulk of The Trilogy, his official introduction—leaks of his photos and an adorable birthday dedication video had circulated online, especially within the circles of die-hard, soon-to-be XO-toting fan base he'd amassed. But, even then, a face was almost all fans had other than the vague character in the music.
The likelihood of that persona belonging to a meek Ethiopian kid from Scarborough, the wide-spanning east end suburb of Toronto, Tesfaye's hometown, was slim. But for The Weeknd, the context of his roots didn't matter, at least not yet. He didn't incorporate Torontonian-isms in his songwriting, or publicly share details of his personal life as it related to anyone but himself. Save for a few funny glimpses into the wild things that happen on tour, The Weeknd existed in a bubble of his own making. What was unprecedented was the effect that his approach would have. The Trilogy, and later, Kiss Land, began the groundwork for much of what exists in alternative R&B today: narcissistic self-deprecation, extreme emotional highs and lows, facelessness, the weaponization of insecurity. Following a two-year break, The Weeknd decided that he needed change. Beauty Behind the Madness marked his official crossover into pop. It worked, and "Can't Feel My Face" ironically earned him a Kids' Choice Award. A little over a year later, The Weeknd has returned with Starboy, his fourth chapter and strangest album yet.
First things first: Starboy is his longest album, a full 18 tracks including features from Lana Del Rey, Future, Daft Punk, and Kendrick Lamar. Where Tesfaye's journey previously had been guided by his inimitable ability to direct feel and mood, Starboy has the slick-mouthed quality of someone no longer interested in the conventional. On "Reminder," the shit-talking begins. "It just seem like niggas tryna sound like all my old shit / Everybody knows it, all these niggas know me / Platinum off a mixtape, sippin' on that codeine," he sings nonchalantly, as though confidence had always been his M.O. On the Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Sidewalks," Tesfaye is damn near unrecognizable. "'Cause too many people think they made me / Well, if they really made me, then replace me," he challenges before likening himself to Moses, a child of the chosen people. A survivor not by choice, but by divine intervention. Consider this: Tesfaye has revealed more in one verse—that is, growing up without a father, homelessness, being taken advantage of professionally—on Starboy than he has in all three projects that preceded it. He even has his variations on ballads with "Die For You" and "Nothing Without You," and he reclaims the running joke of people who frequent Toronto's Queen Street West, an area dedicated to niche boutiques and walking VSCOCam filters. (It's not rude if it's true.) The album's structurelessness is its strongest point, proof that maybe no one knows the Weeknd as well as they think they do.
There are, of course, more typical Weeknd cuts on the album. "A Lonely Night," though upbeat and funky, sounds like a particularly bad string of break-up texts. "Attention," a highlight track featuring some of the album's best production, is fixated on the pettiness of dating. "Rockin'" is amazingly corny. Both "Rockin'" and "Love to Lay" seem like they purposely play into the Michael Jackson critiques of Tesfaye's pop career, doubling as certified bops and tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment. "Six Feet Under" sounds as though it goes hand-in-hand with his collaboration on Beyoncé's "6 Inch." "Secrets," "True Colors," and "Stargirl Interlude" are a beautiful trio of reconciliatory love, providing a nice progression from the jolt of "Starboy," "Party Monster," and "False Alarm" to a smooth vibe precisely halfway through. "Ordinary Life" is momentarily explicit, but it shifts to Tesfaye's own reckoning with morality, holding onto the cross on his neck. He's never identified as an atheist, he said in his Apple Music interview, but with Starboy the cross has become an emblem newly vital to his persona: It's inked on his forthcoming merch, carried in his visuals as a holy scepter, and dangling from the diamond chain that keeps it squarely in the center of his chest. In the past, Tesfaye tested the limits of his mortality, albeit with results that found him perpetually stuck in purgatory. He's since killed the indecision that plagued him. Now, it appears, he's more concerned with starting anew, cementing conviction worth sacrifice.
That means pride: in the experimental range he tries throughout Starboy, in his religious identity, in his cultural background and the people with whom he shares that with. In his VMAN cover story, Tesfaye directly addressed the polarizing conversation around his own vocal capabilities. "I've been told my singing isn't conventional. Ethiopian music was the music I grew up on, artists like Tilahun Gessesse, Aster Aweke, and Mahmoud Ahmed," he said, naming noted Amharic-language classic singers and instrumentalists. "These are my subconscious inspirations." Not unlike other regions of the world, Amharic-singing Ethiopian musicians adhered to a specific stylistic guide: a shaky quiver, a higher pitch and range, moans that melted into the backing instrumental. As Hannah Giorgis puts it, "Tesfaye, with his staccato wails and aching nostalgia, is a young, North American addition to a dynasty of melodramatic Ethiopian singers." This is significant with the release of Starboy; the addition of Aweke's signature hum at the end of "False Alarm" was just as much a surprise as the sudden Amharic at the end of "The Hills."
Though he doesn't speak his native tongue on Starboy, there are other giveaways: The opening of "All I Know" is reminiscent of the trailing vocals on Gessesse's ode to an unrequited love, one of Tesfaye's foremost Amharic musical reference points. These are details that only pockets of his listeners could understand, and the possibility of cultural representation, no matter how limited, became a personal conversation between him to his East African fans. He would tweet shout out to artists like Teddy Afro, Mulatu Astatke, and "Tlahoun" Gessesse, probably knowing the excitement that would ensue shortly after. When rumors that he would join his mother in accepting an award at a massive North American Ethiopian diasporic event this past July, he tweeted his apologies, tagging in a popular comedy page dedicated to creating relatable content for Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora for good measure. Tesfaye's embrace of his roots—in Scarborough, in Ethiopia—is entirely a product of the Starboy era, adding a needed texture and vitality to Tesfaye's narrative thus far. "I might put out an album every year," he said at his ticketed listening party in Toronto. It took five years for The Weeknd to be comfortable enough to let us in. Five years for him to move past the self-conscious, uncertain man from 2011. Starboy feels like just the beginning.
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.