The inevitable, yet understandable irony of Abel Tesfaye — better known as The Weeknd — is that despite his ingenious efforts of remaining a mystery during the release of his introductory triptych, Trilogy, Tesfaye was always bound for the limelight. His latest single, “Starboy,” is far from a revelation, but rather, it is the realization of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Retrospectively, this achievement was foreshadowed in a song entitled, “Rolling Stone,” released in part of his second mixtape, Thursday. The content of which predicted his current superstardom with an almost uncanny accuracy. As commonplace as it may seem, this estimation was more proclamation than generic optimism. A letter of intent even accompanied the video when it was released. Together, all three components were indicative of a more calculated advancement. That is to say, from the earliest onset, Tesfaye planned on becoming a real Starboy.
In 2011, The Weeknd released a series of mixtapes — House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence — that would form his improper debut, Trilogy. The content and style of which were somber, erratic and abrasively explicit. It was radically innovative compared to anything in R&B at the time and Tesfaye undoubtedly influenced many acts that followed. Paired with the concealment of his identity, early affiliation with Drake and quality of his music, Tesfaye's rise in prominence was seemingly a decided affair. Even after the aberration of Kiss Land — his sophomore effort — Tesfaye continued learning, improving and honing his sound. The end result? Beauty Behind The Madness. In 2015, The Weeknd's third album was released after a string of solid singles. To say back-to-form would be inaccurate. Kiss Land may have been considered a blunder critically (and beloved nonetheless), but Tesfaye's output before, during and after the interim of Beauty Behind the Madness was always well respected. This album cemented The Weeknd's ability to balance his hedonistic temperament with a newfound, mainstream accessibility rooted in his production, lyrics and vocal style.
It was all going according to plan. If Tesfaye’s career as The Weeknd has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, then "Rolling Stone" was a premonition and the eponymous "Starboy" has been the realization of a dream come true. "Rolling Stone," alongside Tesfaye's ambition, may be best summed up in the first verse: "I'm in a life without a home so this recognition is not enough." This lyric is resolute: a well-to-do intention, indeed, relatable and still within the scope of such decadent and voluptuous content we’ve come to know from the King of the Fall. However, it was the recognition, or stardom, that was not enough. The lyrics provide a blatant, wanton desire for more success, which is understandably rhetorical. Although, it has always felt like The Weeknd's ascension was inevitable. By his own design, Abel Tesfaye was unavoidably going to become a “Starboy.” Before that, he was an emerging “Rolling Stone”:
"So baby love me
Before they all love me
Until you won't love me
Because they'll all love me
I'll be different
I think I'll be different
I hope I'm not different
And I hope you'll still listen"
Found in the third verse, and shown brilliantly in the music video, the concept here was also hyper-aware of his own potential. At the time, the artist and fans alike both feared the impending success and popularity of The Weeknd. So, the “Rolling Stone” video was used as a metaphor to reassure fans that Tesfaye would not change as he transitioned into the mainstream.
The subsequent balancing act has been laudable. For the past five years, Tesfaye’s pseudonym has evolved in an unabashedly genuine manner. The music is still drug referential, sexually charged and deplorable in a variety of aspects yet the soundscape has changed. It’s a clever subterfuge: the lyrics are less obviously offensive and hide behind the melodies, falsettos and vocal sparkle of Tesfaye’s singing ability, coupled with the theatrically piercing, pop-driven production of his co-conspirators.
The Weeknd’s music has always been dark and culpable, however, "Starboy" is satirical in itself. He's surpassed the declaration of intent on "Rolling Stone" while staying relatively true to his trademark debauchery. On the surface, "Starboy" is braggadocios — cool, but it's deeper than that; it's ironically much more comically perverse. During the chorus, Tesfaye is literally laughing at the listener:
"[Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha]
Look what you’ve done
I’m a motherfuckin’ Starboy"
This is the crux of The Weeknd. We the people are responsible for his rise in stature despite his intoxicated libertinism. What’s more, he knows it and we know it. It’s being pointed out to us as we speak. It was being pointed out when new fans everywhere sang, “I Can’t Feel My Face”: a song personifying drug addiction. The “Starboy” video depicts Tesfaye figuratively killing his old self, replacing him with a new, literal Starboy and destroying everything he has gained and accomplished thus far. Again, that’s the balancing act. Tesfaye’s entire persona as The Weeknd is built upon his self-destructive tendencies and the manner he embraces them. When you think about it like this, he should be laughing too. Not only has he achieved the recognition he was after — he’s become the status quo.