The Weeknd Redeems His Tales of Drugs & Excess in 'Starboy,' Sort Of

In 'Starboy,' the hedonistic excess from which The Weeknd's always sourced his material is fitted with electro-dance beats and true emotion.

The melody merchant is back. And this time he's gone electronic, book-ending his third studio album, Starboy, with not one, but two songs—the title track and “I Feel It Coming”— produced by Daft Punk.

The hedonistic excess from which The Weeknd's always sourced material, far from being exhausted, has been retrofitted with electro-dance. That's not to say that ‘mixtape Weeknd’ isn't alive and well.

Last year's Beauty Behind the Madness brought him chart success and a string of awards of which one rankled. He addresses this on “Reminder” confounded that he “just won a new award for a kid’s show/talking about a face coming off a bag of blow.”

Such a “recognition” will sanitise and eventually defang what is most interesting about his music. “Goddamn bitch, I ain't no Teen Choice,” he snarls perhaps pissed that his name is bracketed with Justin Bieber's too often.

Male R&B titans rarely mesh well on the same song (see, for example, R. Kelly and Usher’s “Same Girl”), but the rappers have had less trouble doing so (Nas and Jay Z’s “Black Republicans” or, more qualifying as a rap-twin, Rick Ross’ “War Ready” featuring Jeezy.)

In this new album, Future and The Weeknd re-occupy the same smoke chamber after “Low Life” off Future’s Evol.

“All I Know” is expansive in mood and length clocking in at 5:21 minutes. Midway through, The Weeknd’s falsetto meanders as though he's summoning a presence. When it appears in the form of Future, that presence emerges something less-human and more spectral-being spouting images, half-phrases, incomplete thoughts and near-gibberish like, “Lamborghini make her creep walk.”

Back in 2012, The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) had a public quarreled with Zodiac (formerly Jeremy Rose), a producer who claimed to have inspired and co-curated the pop star's dark aesthetic after getting production credits on some songs off his debut mixtape House of Balloons.

As if still reeling from that public spat, The Weeknd moans “too many people claim that they made me, if they really made me then replace me” in “Sidewalk” which features an expectedly dexterous verse from Kendrick Lamar.

Criticism that, thematically, Tesfaye has been tilling the same patch of land for years is true but for the wrong reasons.

Kanye West is capable of downsizing from the spectacularly baggy “Dark Fantasy” to the taut and industrial Yeezus, only to conflate those two opposing sensibilities in the supreme Life of Pablo. Very few humans are capable of this.

The Weeknd’s own self-renewal project is to, yes, till the same patch of land (high grade drugs, lust, loneliness), but employing different and now-improved tools from art-house horror (Kiss Land) to the galactic (Starboy).

Heavily indebted to Michael Jackson, his biggest hit to date, “I Can't Feel My Face,” was co-produced by Max Martin and Payami, who here made “Rockin,” a beat which could have been credited to Disclosure, or more interestingly to Darkchild and Michael Jackson’s “You Rock My World.” In fact, “Rockin” sounds eerily like a cranked-up version of “You Rock My World.” Other similarities abound.

“Starboy” and “I Can Feel It Coming” are lyrically less weighted than any other songs here, but they're also better welded to the Starboy vehicle than others.

Daft Punk’s beats on “Starboy” are like beastly grumblings over which The Weeknd opens the song and album saying “I’m tryna put you in the worst mood,” before going on to tell you the many ways in which he's out of your league having “made your whole year in a week too”. He's less bullish on “I Feel It Coming,” which finds him soothing a love-burnt lover not to shut him out.

“Ordinary Life” is the one song that is defiantly ‘mixtape Weeknd’—but here enhanced with better drugs, heightened nihilism and grander references “Valhalla is where all the righteous are led.” The hook is Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” repurposed for debauchery (as he did with Mary J Blige’s “Real Love” which became “Real Life,” the opener on Beauty Behind The Madness).

But then Emeli Sande, another song writing majesty, retraced the melodic goodness of Tesfaye’s “The Morning” to make the celestial “Selah,” the first song off her recent album, Long Live The Angels.

Rather than being rife with it, the misogyny in The Weeknd’s music is actually the normal state of play. Some of the women in his world are victims of course, but others are willful participants who share his neediness, fluctuating self-esteem and drug palette.

His sweet, sweet falsetto is then like a cough syrup which masks its bitter, more active agents. It is also one of the reasons why he's adored by many, a considerable amount of whom are women. Being tapped to record the lead soundtrack for Fifty Shades of Gray confirmed this on a much larger scale.

A surprising find on Starboy is that the self-indulgence has been complicated by what appears to be real feelings. Seven out the 18 songs on the album are evidence of, if not emotional growth, then emotional responsibility on his part. See some quotes below for proof:

'Love To Lay'

“I feel there's someone else worth your time from the start/ he's just one call away from your mind and your heart”

'Die For You'

“I'm scared that I'll miss you, happens every time/I don't want this feeling, I can't afford love”


“I can see that you're not mine/I can see the lust in your eyes”

'True Colors'

“Baby girl, we all had a past/I'd much rather hear the truth come from you”

'A Lonely Night'

“I loved you on a lonely night/it was the only time and if I led you then I apologise”

'Nothing Without You'

“I was too busy trying to find you with someone else/ the one I couldn't stand to be with was me”


“Tell me how to love/it's been so long”

The copious quotes are not to combat the prevailing perception that he's sexist, and I doubt he had a stated aim to repair this image of him. I'll even go as far saying (but not to a conclusion) that these are not altogether conscious decision of his.

Neither would I venture into his sub-conscious as it is for fear of falling into an abyss. But if I were to aggregate them all into a whole, the sum is a significant improvement on the way him or Starboy see and treat women.

Sabo Kpade is an Associate Writer with Spread The Word. His short story Chibok was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. His first play, Have Mercy on Liverpool Street was longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. He lives in London.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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