At 26 years old, Abel Tesfaye has had a hell of a career. I remember first hearing of him when he appeared on Drake’s Take Care, in ‘Crew Love’ providing a lush, dream-like hook behind Drake’s smooth lyricism. That felt like his big break, and ever since then he’s been lighting up the billboard, collaborating with exponentially bigger artists like Disclosure and Travis Scott to propel himself to the front of the mainstream. His voice gets all of the attention, a soulful siren echoing the past who sounds best layered over a contemporary beat. Though, last year when he released Beauty Behind the Madness, I felt he was backing himself into a corner. He’d gone down the sultry road, with songs like ‘Earned It’ and ‘Often’ showing his capable ability to drive sex appeal into his songs. Whilst effective, I felt this album wasn’t really standout, with only a few gems among the rough; namely ‘The Hills’ and ‘Shameless’.
“a soulful siren echoing the past who sounds best layered over a contemporary beat”
Abel is destined for pop stardom, so if he was to seriously make some headway and mould the scene in his creative image, he’d have to do something surprising. Enter stage left, STARBOY. Where I thought BBTM was talking to me through an over-produced lens, this feels like Abel telling stories he’s experienced, moments he’s felt and lived through. It’s experimental in his own special way, but hits that sweet spot where most of the songs could and do get airplay. The title track proves he’s as much of a lyricist as a singer “Star Trek roof in that Wraith of Khan” – of course helped by the undeniably fantastic production of Daft Punk. But I think this album shines in the later cuts, songs that might not indulge Radio 1, but get personal and reach through genre boundaries to entertain the ears. ‘Secrets’ a modern hip-hop revival of Tears for Fears’ ‘Pale Shelter’ in both sample and tone, exploring a tale of deceptive love, and showing his eclectic taste.
Songs like ‘Sidewalks’ with Kendrick and ‘All I Know/Six Feet Under’ with Future are bumpier, and the features are passable, ultimately making them feel like cutting room clean-ups from his last album. Further, ‘Ordinary Life’, a song unabashedly about ‘Road Head’ (seriously) is a total misfire, but I can look past it for the sake of the other gems. ‘True Colors’ is the standout marvel of this record, a gorgeous early 2000’s ballad cataloguing Abel’s need for the women in his life to be who they are, not who they’re attempting to be for ‘The Weeknd’. His voice is almost tortured as he weaves lines about this girl ‘painting him a picture’ of her genuine self through her actions instead of giving him something fake. It’s beautiful, and a must listen on an already unmissable album. This is followed later by Attention, another song with the influence of producer Cashmere Cat, a polemic song about an undervalued partner. The stories Abel tells on this album are certainly worth hearing past the title track, and the evolution of his sound is seriously impressive. Don’t sleep on this one!