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The Weeknd plays musical tug-of-war, with mixed results

By Sam Keeling, Staff Writer

Abel Tesfaye's journey to superstardom was as strange as it was inevitable. He arose from Toronto in the early 2010's with a string of excellent R&B mixtapes as The Weeknd. His first mixtapes, collected in 2012's "Trilogy," were filled with murky, mysterious songs that challenged the conventions of R&B. The music, combined with his alluring personality and instantly iconic hairdo, propelled him to the top of the genre.

In addition to trendsetting beats, Tesfaye has a falsetto reminiscent of Michael Jackson, and he put that voice to good use on 2015's megahit, "Can't Feel My Face," which became the ubiquitous song of the summer. A few months later, he released "Beauty Behind the Madness", an opus containing "Can't Feel My Face" alongside equally popular smashes like "The Hills," "Often," "In the Night" and "Earned It." By the end of the year, The Weeknd was at the top of the musical world, second only to Drake in popularity.

So how does an oddball alt-R&B artist deal with a glaring spotlight? Apparently, Tesfaye's solution is ditching the "oddball" part. This September, The Weeknd announced his new album, "Starboy," and released a Daft Punk-assisted single of the same name. The album cover showed Tesfaye with a slick, short haircut.

If he was going for a "new 'do, new you" approach, then he succeeded -- somewhat. With "Starboy," The Weeknd abandons his identity as a trailblazer who subverts the sounds of the mainstream while simultaneously defining the genre's future. Instead, Tesfaye embraces the role of a modern-day music titan, a "starboy" with a collection of dance-floor ready trap beats mixed with 80's funk- and groove-infused jams that are -- you guessed it -- dance-floor ready.

For the most part, those funk fusion tracks -- "Rockin'," "Secrets," "A Lonely Night" and "I Feel It Coming" -- are the strongest on the album. Tesfaye's vocals fit perfectly with the sound. "A Lonely Night" is a particularly groovy song with a beat that coerces body movement and a deliriously catchy bridge. "I Feel It Coming," the album's finale which also features French electronic duo Daft Punk, is as close to pop perfection as you'll find this year. The backing piano is gorgeously melancholic, the chorus is uplifting and the funky rhythm builds on throwback sounds without sounding derivative.

These songs occupy a decent amount of the album's runtime, but they are peppered between gloomy trap beats that, unfortunately, don't hold their own. Tracks like "Party Monster" and "Six Feet Under" pack enough earth-shaking bass to fill the club floor, but there's no defining characteristic to separate them from the standard fare by Future, Fetty Wap, Drake or Travis Scott. There's nothing wrong with this genre, but Tesfaye's voice separates him from these musicians. When Future mumble-raps through tracks, it seems born of vocal necessity; when The Weeknd strings together monotonous verses, it feels like wasted potential. Maybe that's why the "Starboy" tracks featuring Future, "Six Feet Under" and "All I Know," are two of the lowest points on the album.

Tesfaye doesn't challenge or threaten his newfound stardom with "Starboy." On the contrary, it's a strong album that solidifies the Weeknd as the name to beat in the pop battleground. By combining modern club bangers with old-school grooves, Tesfaye makes sure that all members of his ever-growing fan base will find something to dance to. But those two sounds don't complement each other well, and the album's impact is dampened by this sonic infighting. "Starboy" finds The Weeknd sacrificing some of his musical uniqueness in order to make more hits. While the result isn't a step backwards, here's hoping that the next Weeknd album finds a better balance between the two.

3.5/5 Stars

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