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Hear This Not That: The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ reveals growth in musical style, maturity

The Weeknd showed the beginnings of stardom with 2015 album “Beauty Behind the Madness” (right) now fully realized with Friday’s release of “Starboy” (left). (Republic Records)

By Kun Yong (Sean) Lee

Nov. 27, 2016 11:18 p.m.

Music fans can find it hard to decide which albums to stream and which to skip, considering the surplus of new music released. Each week, A&E columnist Sean Lee will compare two newly released albums and recommend which one students should listen to. This week, Lee reflects on the The Weeknd’s rise from his last-year release of “Beauty Behind the Madness” and the realization of his star power with “Starboy,” which was released Friday.

Canadian superstar The Weeknd commands such a level of hype that even a haircut can drive ripples of internet anticipation for a new album.

Few mainstream artists can maintain the level of musical consistency the Toronto crooner has shown over the course of his two latest album releases, “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy.”

The Weeknd, the musical pseudonym of Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, dominated 2015 with his album “Beauty Behind the Madness.”

The singer’s interest in live instrumentation came to the forefront on the 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face,” amid genre-bending electronic dance music beats. While none of the album’s other songs topped the charts quite like “Can’t Feel My Face,” the mature rhythm and blues and electronic mixture throughout the rest of the tracks elevated The Weeknd’s image from the dark house partier to international icon.

[Last week: Hear This Not That: Thee Oh Sees’ album reinvents rock, Title Tracks’ is unoriginal]

But “Beauty Behind the Madness” was not without flaws, especially in the case of lyrical and thematic repetitiveness. In “Tell Your Friends,” the lyrics “Go tell your friends about it” and Tesfaye’s monotonous voice drone on – the redundant lyrics failed to match the exciting variety and contrast in the sound production of the album.

“Real Life,” the opening track from “Beauty Behind the Madness,” pairs arena-ready synths with Tesfaye’s confessional lyrics, “‘Cause every woman that loved me / I seemed to push them away.” His rejection of true emotional connection in favor of momentary intoxication and affluence is a lyrical theme prevalent throughout the rest of the album.

On “Losers,” The Weeknd sings, “I’m not the type to count on you / ‘Cause stupid’s next to ‘I love you,’” which is paired with a heavy EDM drop at the chorus. The combination makes the song an anthem for self-empowerment that will make its way into the club scene.

“Acquainted” finds The Weeknd rejecting a lover whom he deems “no good,” bemoaning that her problem is she loves him in a way no one else has. But his signature high-pitched R&B voice over gritty trap beats makes it sound as if the instrumental was originally intended more for a rapper like Future than for Tesfaye and his crooning vocals.

With the release of The Weeknd’s third studio album “Starboy,” the artist once again reinvents himself musically with heavy synths and futuristic sounds, all the while addressing his past album’s flaws by choosing elegant production that better suits his smooth, casual singing style. “Starboy” is the sign of an artist who has recognized his weaknesses and has grown from them.

[Read more: More album comparisons from ‘Hear This Not That’]

Looking back, “Beauty Behind the Madness” lyrically left The Weeknd warbling to an immature sense of love that confuses a one-night stand for serious connection. Paired with an assortment of highly produced beats, the older album sounded like a collection of flopped singles instead of a singular body of work.

But the production on “Starboy” complements The Weeknd’s singing while presenting a newfound sense of lyrical maturity. The Weeknd in 2015 chose to remain aloof, but The Weeknd in 2016 reveals that all the partying and drugs covered up his insecurities toward attachment.

“I just need a girl who gon’ really understand,” sings The Weeknd on “Party Monster,” revealing a deeper perspective on emotional connection than his previous album, which focused on looks and lust. On “True Colors,” Tesfaye reveals relationship concerns as he asks his lover to disclose her true self to him, singing, “These are the questions of a new lover.”

Productionwise, the sleek beats influenced by Daft Punk’s futuristic electronica on the title track “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” elevate The Weeknd’s singing style, along with hip-hop beats made slower and passionate with guitars, as on the Kendrick Lamar featured track “Sidewalks.”

Listen to “Beauty Behind the Madness” for a glimpse into the troubled artist hiding behind extravagant instrumentation. Listen to “Starboy” for a complete revelation of a matured musician whose celebrity lives up to his title track.

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Kun Yong (Sean) Lee
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